Effort to tackle secrecy in how public policy is made must go further than planned lobbying register
Report highlights urgent need for more proactive transparency in decision-making to tackle risks of abuse in government policy making
Efforts to tackle secrecy in lobbying and the risks of concealed interests in government policy making must not end with the introduction of a planned online lobbying register, Transparency International Ireland (TI Ireland) has said.
The anti-corruption group made its comments with the release today of a new study, Influence and Integrity: Lobbying and its Regulation in Ireland. The report comes on foot of a number of lobbying-related controversies over the past year, as well as the recent publication of the Registration of Lobbying Bill 2014 which will be discussed in the Dáil tomorrow. [Tuesday 25 November]
The draft law will compel interest groups, individuals and public affairs consultants to publish details of their efforts to lobby key public officials and elected representatives in an online register.
The report’s findings include the following:
- A vibrant range of groups and individuals are engaged in lobbying in Ireland, offering valuable insights, expertise and feedback that inform and enrich public decision-making processes. However, significant lobbying efforts are hidden from public scrutiny and include ‘political insiders’ using their connections to access and seek to influence decision-makers.
- Lobbying ‘from the inside’ by private interests through advisory or expert groups and taskforces is an area of particular concern. Members appointed to such bodies often give up significant amounts of their time to these voluntary public duties. However, the fact that corporate executives and lobbyists can sit on such groups in a personal capacity poses a clear risk that concealed interests may have undue influence over policy-making.
- Efforts to safeguard the public interest in decision-making are piecemeal and ineffective. Laws and guidelines which set ethical behavioural standards for public officials are unduly complex and inadequate. Sanctions for breaches of these rules do not act as a sufficient deterrent, while oversight structures are also weak. Furthermore, there is not enough emphasis on ethics training for public officials and elected representatives.
The study also notes the role the planned ‘register of lobbying activities’ will play in increasing transparency. Lobbyists will be required to file online returns on their lobbying activities three times a year; and for the first time, the public will be able to see who is trying to influence whom. However, TI Ireland concludes that the register as currently planned will not capture as much information as it should. There are no plans to publish submissions made by lobbyists or compel lobbyists to share financial information on sources of income from clients or donors.
“The proposed public register of lobbying will bring some welcome transparency in relation to who is seeking to influence some senior decision-makers, and about what – and for that we broadly welcome it,” said the report’s lead researcher, Nuala Haughey.
“But there are definite limits to what these kinds of online registers can do. And it would be wrong for the public to get the impression that this somehow solves all the problems we face when politicians, officials and regulators allow themselves to be co-opted by vested interests or professional lobbyists working on their behalf,” she added.
In its report, TI Ireland calls for further reforms that would promote transparency, prevent conflicts of interest, and hold lobbyists, public officials and elected representatives to account for any abuses of the system.
The recommendations include:
To promote transparency
- Lobbyists should be compelled to share policy submissions and any documents that they have shared with public officials aimed at influencing legislation or government decisions. These should be published on the new register. Such a measure would help inform debate on public policy.
- Financial data on sources of client or donor income should also be published on the register, allowing the public to better follow the money trail in politics.
- Lobbyists should disclose any activities undertaken on behalf of political parties, elected officials or election candidates. This would include any voluntary support a lobbyist has given such as public/media relations advice, fundraising, strategic advice and research to parties and candidates.
To prevent conflicts of interest/abuse of public position
- The Government should introduce mandatory two year ‘cooling-off’ periods for all senior public servants at local and national level, including special advisers and Ministers. This would involve the establishment of an independent oversight body that would decide on whether a conflict of interest arises from the appointment of a former public official to a paid position in the private sector. Penalties including fines and publication of the decision would be imposed on any former official who failed to comply with the body’s ruling.
- A statutory Code of Conduct should be introduced and training offered on the Code to guide lobbyists and public officials on acceptable behaviour.
To hold people to account
- SIPO should be given a legal responsibility to conduct inspections and audits of online returns made by lobbyists under the planned lobbying law and to name and shame those found to have breached it.
- The Government should make it a criminal offence for public officials and elected representatives to fail to declare an interest under the Ethics Acts or to make false or misleading interest disclosures.
“People need to have confidence that government is making policy based on sound evidence and in the public interest. The breakdown in trust in government can be seen in the public’s reaction to government policy around water charges. The Government is going to have to be far more proactive in putting information into the public domain that allows citizens to judge whether the evidence supports those policies that affect them”, said John Devitt, TI Ireland Chief Executive.
“Regulations are also needed to stop the abuse of relationships between business and government. The Government has yet to deliver on its Programme for Government pledge to curb the free movement of former public officials and Ministers into positions in the private sector. The revolving door between business and government has always posed a risk of cronyism and conflicts of interest – but so far we have seen words but no action to stop this. We look forward in the coming months to seeing a comprehensive set of reforms to the entire framework for ethics in public life which is currently not fit for purpose.
“Of course, it takes two to lobby and it shouldn’t be left up to lobbyists alone to clean up our act. Public officials also have a part to play in promoting transparency in government and ensuring that the public interest is always safeguarded. And although the government has made some welcome progress in opening up government this year, the measures introduced so far don’t go far enough.’ Mr Devitt added.
About the study
The study titled ‘Influence and Integrity: Lobbying and its Regulation in Ireland’ is based on a methodology created by Transparency International as part of a project involving the assessment of lobbying regulations and practices in 19 European countries. The research was led by Nuala Haughey, who interviewed key figures in the lobbying profession, non-profit sector, politics and business, as well as senior serving and former civil servants. The project was funded by the Prevention of and Fight Against Crime Programme of the European Union.
TI Ireland's Submission on the Registration of Lobbying Act 2014 is available here.
TI Ireland will also publish a study on the self-regulation of lobbying in Europe and guide on ethical lobbying early in 2015.
The participating countries are Austria, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, and the United Kingdom.
For any press enquiries please contact
Nuala Haughey and John Devitt
Transparency International Ireland
+353 1 871 9433