Transparency International Ireland (TI Ireland) has called for reform of the country’s ethics laws and the establishment of a new complaints procedure for people reporting abuses of public office.
The call from Ireland’s leading anti-corruption group comes on foot of the publication yesterday by the State’s ethics watchdog of its annual report.
The report by the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPOC) (www.sipo.ie) outlines a number of inquiries it handled last year, including complaints made against former Senator Ivor Callely.
It also describes how an official in Mayo County Council intentionally secured the use of public funds to improve access to property which he owned. Another SIPOC inquiry found that a Donegal councillor broke the law by claiming unwarranted expenses. In both cases it appears that it was left to the respective county councils to decide what if any sanctions or disciplinary procedures should be applied.
“Successive SIPOC reports send out the message that officials and public representatives can abuse their office for private gain and get away with a slap on the wrist,” said John Devitt, Chief Executive of TI Ireland. “The law needs to be changed so abuses can be rooted out and officials held to account.”
“While a Garda investigation is believed to be underway into how former Senator Callely claimed his expenses, the length of time it has taken for such cases to go to court creates the impression that the law is stacked in favour of politicians and senior officials who are accused of misusing their positions,” Mr Devitt added.
In contrast to the low number of criminal cases brought against public officials, 150 people were jailed for not paying television licence fines in 2010. No politician has served a custodial sentence for a breach of the Ethics Acts since the legislation was introduced in 1995.
SIPOC has also drawn attention to the low level of complaints made to it by the public. Only 56 complaints against office holders were made in 2010. The low number of reports may be down to a lack of awareness of SIPOC’s complaints procedures, according to TI Ireland. The anti-corruption group launched a free helpline named ‘Speak Up’ last May and has handled more than 120 calls from members of the public since then. TI Ireland has noted that many callers to the helpline are unaware of how to report a concern about a public official or to whom they should report.
TI Ireland has also branded existing ethics and whistleblower legislation as “convoluted, weak and confusing”, with up to twenty pieces of legislation restricting the type of information that can be passed to the authorities for investigation. TI Ireland has welcomed Minister Brendan Howlin’s recent announcement that he will publish a draft universal whistleblower law this year.
- TI Ireland strongly supports SIPOC’s call, in the wake of the Mayo County Council investigation, for a review of the use of discretionary funds by local authority members by the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government on a national basis to ensure that scarce public resources are not abused in future.
- The Government should fast track the introduction of a universal whistleblower law to protect workers in both the public and private sector reporting concerns in the public interest. Complaints mechanisms under the Local Government Act 2001 should also be made clearer.
- SIPOC should be allowed appoint an inquiry officer into suspected breaches of the Ethics Acts without a formal complaint. The Commission has sometimes uncovered evidence of wrongdoing but has been unable to undertake initial inquiries without a formal complaint.
- The SIPOC should report to the Oireachtas rather than the Minister of Finance and reports should be published while the Houses of the Oireachtas are sitting.
- The quorum needed for the SIPOC to hear investigations should be reduced from six to three members. The current quorum means that all members of SIPOC, most of whom are employed as full-time senior public servants (including the Ombudsman and the Comptroller and Auditor General), must be present to conduct an investigation. This makes it very difficult for SIPOC to work effectively.
- A code of conduct for public servants and members of state boards should be introduced as soon as possible.
- The Director of Public Prosecutions and Garda Síochána should prioritise the investigation and prosecution of corruption cases and suspected offences by public officials. The current Policing Plan of An Garda Síochána makes no mention of the fight against corruption or white collar crime.
Transparency International Ireland recently launched Western Europe’s first ethics and anti-corruption free-phone helpline. Speak Up (www.speakup.ie) allows people to make anonymous reports about wrongdoing and advises potential whistleblowers and victims of corruption or white-collar-crime on ways to secure redress.
The Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPOC) is a State body responsible for enforcing and advising on the Ethics Acts (which are aimed at preventing and punishing certain forms of wrongdoing by senior public officials and politicians), and the Electoral Acts (aimed at preventing abuse of electoral expenses and spending). It was established in 2001 when it replaced the Public Offices Commission.
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