Watchdog ‘disappointed’ with review of State’s lobbying Act

Sipo sought greater powers to monitor staff flows between public and private sectors

Sherry Perrault: “There is a perception people come into government from the private sector, or leave government and go into the private sector and use their influence, network or connections to further a private interest.”

Sherry Perrault: “There is a perception people come into government from the private sector, or leave government and go into the private sector and use their influence, network or connections to further a private interest.”

 

Ireland’s lobbying watchdog has criticised the Government for failing to give it extra powers to police the “revolving door” between the private and public sectors.

Sherry Perrault, who is in charge of ethics and lobbying at the Standards in Public Office commission (Sipo), said it was “disappointed none of its recommendations were adopted” during a review of the State’s lobbying Act.

She told The Irish Times that despite its requests the law be strengthened, “the commission doesn’t have all the tools it could have to ensure the effective operation of the legislation”.

Sipo made a total of 22 separate recommendations during the review of the lobbying laws, and asked for stronger legislative powers. Among these were concerns about how tightly existing obligations were being adhered to, and its own lack of powers to investigate or sanction some transgressions.

However, the Government’s review, published on Tuesday, limited its proposals for reform to “more education and guidance”. The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, which ran the review, found there was no convincing case for updating lobbying laws introduced in 2014.

Post-employment rules

Sipo said in a statement this approach would be insufficient, and legislative reforms were needed in a variety of areas, including the contentious topic of post-employment rules.

These cover the obligations of ministers, special advisers and senior public officials if they leave office and go to work in the private sector. Sipo made four recommendations in this area, none of which was enacted.

It recommended that failure to abide by this section be made an offence, and asked for enhanced enforcement powers. It pointed out at least one instance where someone had beached the Act but the commission “had no authority to investigate or prosecute . . . bring[ing] into sharp focus the lack of power to enforce the Act’s post-employment provisions, or to impose sanctions for persons who fail to comply with these provisions”.

Ms Perrault said traffic between the public and private sectors can give rise to “the phenomenon known as the revolving door, where there is a perception people come into government from the private sector, or leave government and go into the private sector and use their influence, network or connections to further a private interest”.

‘Unreported breaches’

Sipo warned that low numbers of people contacting it about further employment suggested the Act may be flouted.

“The commission finds it somewhat implausible that less than 10 former DPOs [designated public officials] have sought outside employment that engaged their obligations under the Act. While it has no firm evidence of other contraventions, the commission is of the view that there are likely to have been instances of unreported breaches.”

It also warned the Act should be amended to remove a loophole whereby organisations without employees do not have to disclose their contacts with government departments or State agencies. It said this “undermines the spirit and intent of the legislation, and provides an effective loophole for those who might exploit it”.

Sipo’s submission to the consultation argued that it should be given authority to conduct inquiries and report on breaches of the code of conduct that governs lobbying, but this was also not granted.