Politics

Lobbying watchdog criticises extent of reforms


The outgoing head of lobbying and ethics in the State’s political standards watchdog has criticised the extent of reforms in the area.

Sherry Perreault, who is stepping down from the Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo) after seven years to return to a new role in her native Canada, said legislative, structural and resourcing improvements were needed for Ireland to have “an effective, robust and properly operating ethics system”.

“Reforms are needed to ensure that Ireland has the robust ethics framework it deserves,” she said.

Ms Perreault said significant improvements had been made in Ireland in recent years, pointing to the improved regulation of lobbying – and welcomed draft legislation governing the so-called ‘revolving door’ between politics and business.

However, she pointed to multiple areas that need improvement, including the 1997 electoral Act, introduced before online campaigns were even imagined. “The Act itself needs fundamental revision to make it fit for purpose in today’s modern world,” she said, pointing out that ethics legislation also has not been refreshed for 21 years.

“It doesn’t encompass a lot of things that would be standard in robust legislation, like preferential treatment and nepotism and improper influence,” she said, calling for the publication of registers of interest to be expanded beyond Oireachtas members, to advisers, senior civil servants as others – and to detail liabilities, such as debts, as well as assets.

She also called for a shake-up to rules governing gift-giving, especially during periods when officials are not actively considering a proposal or submission from an interested party. “It’s not unusual to see hospitality or tickets to events to build relationships, and if you’ve built that relationship it’s going to get you preferential access in the future,” she said.

Secretariat

Ms Perreault said the secretariat supporting Sipo needed greater resources, and to tackle the workload of ex-officio members of the commission.

“The Hamilton group that reviewed the country’s anticorruption framework in 2019-2020 called for a resource review of the commission and ring-fencing the budget as the current staff complement is insufficient to effectively support the statutory mandate. In my view, the secretariat needs to be properly staffed to allow it to effectively support the commission. At present, there are functions we simply cannot perform because of volume and lack of capacity,” she said.

Elsewhere, the watchdog on Monday called the requirement that all parties, regardless of size, file audited statements of account “excessive”. The commission said smaller parties could be exempted from the requirement and asked to furnish unaudited statements of account under some circumstances – for example, parties who receive no public funding or small levels of private donations.

Sipo reiterated its concerns that it has been left effectively toothless when it comes to sanctioning a party which does not receive funding but fails to provide accounts, as the only punishment is to withhold funding.

Filings with Sipo show Fine Gael drew down a loan of €620,000 during 2020, secured by a charge over its headquarters on Mount Street in Dublin. The Labour Party’s accounts show it is defending a legal action in relation to a property that is due before the courts in “due course”.



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