Watchdog fears public servants moving into lobbying roles too easily

Ex-public servant refused exception after Sipo said new firm had been lobbying the applicant

Sherry Perreault,  head of lobbying regulation at the Standards in Public Office Commission. File photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times.

Sherry Perreault, head of lobbying regulation at the Standards in Public Office Commission. File photograph: Eric Luke / The Irish Times.

 

The State’s ethics watchdog is concerned that it is too easy for senior public servants to leave their roles and immediately move into lobbying positions.

Under the Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015, government ministers, special advisers and senior public officials who leave their position must wait for a year before working for any organisation involved in lobbying the government.

However, they can apply for an exemption to this “cooling off” period if their new job will not involve direct lobbying of their previous employers.

The cooling off period is designed to prevent lobbyists benefiting from insider information or preferential treatment.

Last year five civil servants and special advisers applied for exemptions to the cooling off period. The Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO) granted four of the requests after being informed the applicants’ new companies had never been engaged in lobbying their former Government department.

In one case, Sipo refused to grant a waiver after noting the applicant’s new employer had only recently been engaged in lobbying the applicant themselves while they still worked in Government.

Narrow circumstances

In its annual report released on Thursday, Sipo said it can only refuse to grant a waiver in narrow circumstances such as if the applicant’s new employer had been involved in direct lobbying to their former Government department.

It noted that senior government officials often have “broad reach” beyond the department they work in.

“Their knowledge, influence or connections are not limited solely to the public body with which they were formerly employed or held office,” Sipo said.

However, it can only impose lobbying restrictions relating to the department the person worked for directly.

The commission said it in some cases where public servants had moved to the private sector “the spirit of the act” meant conditions restricting lobbying activities should have been imposed. However, Sipo could not impose any conditions because it did not have the relevant powers.

It said the law should be strengthened to allow it to impose conditions on former public servants in a broader set of circumstances.

Since 2014, when the register of lobbyists was established, 1,678 individuals or bodies have registered as lobbyists with 234 registering last year. The vast majority of lobbying activities concerned the health sector.

Prosecution

Last year Sipo notified 198 people or organisations they may face prosecution for engaging in lobbying while not registered as lobbyists. Eight files were prepared for prosecution but the lobbyists in question agreed to register before the cases were proceeded with.

The commission also noted with concern that in some counties very few people have registered as lobbyists. In Dublin there are 1,002 registered lobbyists while there are only six in both Carlow and Leitrim, and two in Sligo.

“While it is not surprising that Dublin, as the national capital city, has the highest percentage of registrants, it is surprising that a number of counties have single digit numbers of registrants,” Sipo said.

“As Designated Public Officials include local authority members and senior staff as well as TDs, Senators and others, it is to be expected that all counties would have lobbying activities taking place at a local level and a significantly higher number of registrants.”