Long overdue reform of Standards in Public Office Commission

A reassuring aspect of the new scheme involves the granting of a decade-old request by Sipo for the power to initiate investigations

 

A proposal to replace the Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo) with a new structure, involving additional powers and oversight measures, is a long-awaited development. The initiative is a response to recommendations by the Mahon and Moriarty tribunals designed to improve ethical standards and to reduce corruption in public life. Details of the draft scheme approved by Cabinet will, for the first time, provide for the suspension of Oireachtas members and senior officials from public life in cases involving corruption, abuses of power, false declarations, conflicts of interest and obstruction of the Commission. TDs and senators may be suspended for up to 12 months, provided Oireachtas approval is forthcoming.

A similar sanction may be imposed on senior public and civil servants and executives in State companies, following court approval. The structure of the proposed Public Services Standards Commission is unduly cumbersome. An independent Commissioner will be given the power to initiate investigations; to protect the identity of whistleblowers and to propose penalties for a range of offences. Separately, a Deputy Commissioner will direct investigating officers in an independent capacity. Penalties in all serious cases will require external oversight and approval.

A reassuring aspect of the scheme involves the granting of a decade-old request by Sipo for the power to initiate investigations. Action will also be taken to improve standards in public office and to limit conflicts of interest when civil servants join the private sector. Recommendations by Sipo that electoral spending should be confined to the campaign itself and that the practice of inviting donations below the reporting threshold should be ended are, however, not addressed.

Sipo has existed on barely-concealed political sufferance for years. The last government signalled it would be replaced and that will now happen. In a final hurrah, however, Sipo published details of party political accounts “in the public interest” last week. Once again, it drew attention to the avoidance of donation limits by political parties but, by publishing aggregate accounts, provided an insight into their financial health. In 2014, while not registering a single donation, Fianna Fail’s bank balance stood at €187,169; Fine Gael, with a bank balance of €314,357 reported donations of €102,367; Labour, with a bank balance of €82,934, recorded €5,000 in donations. Sinn Féin mustn’t trust banks. It filed donations of €1,520 and a bank balance of €3,914.

Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin released details of the new scheme yesterday. It will now go to a Dáil committee for consideration while legislation is to be drafted “as a priority”. After that, a Bill will have to be approved by the Oireachtas. Progress has been painfully slow.