Speech by Mr Brendan Howlin T.D.

Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform

At the Launch of the Lobbying Register

30 April 2015

 

 1.    Introduction

We’re here this morning to unveil the new on-line register of lobbying.

Coincidentally back on 30th April 2008, exactly 7 years ago, from the Opposition benches I introduced a Private Members Registration of Lobbyists Bill to:

provide in the public interest for the registration of paid lobbyists and, to the greatest extent possible, consistent with the public interest in free and open access to central and local government, for the disclosure of their activities…

So I am particularly pleased as Minister for Public Expenditure & Reform to be able to bring this idea to fruition some seven years later.

Lobbying raises many contradictory feelings in the public mind. It is a term that has come to have negative connotations, not least because of recent history in the planning area.

However, lobbying is absolutely necessary in order to maintain a healthy and well-functioning democracy. Neither Government nor the public service has a monopoly on wisdom. We cannot operate in a vacuum. We need to hear the perspectives of all sectors in order to make sound well informed decisions which best serve the needs of society as a whole.

On a daily basis, I’m approached by a range of interest groups, representative bodies, industry and civil society organisations. They   all provide crucial input and feedback to the political and public administration systems through communication of the views and concerns of interested parties and the general public.

Of course, they also seek to influence the policy and decision-making process. Each set of interests wishes to align public policy with their own goals and objectives.  These goals and objectives may reflect a private, commercial or sectional interest or what may be represented as a wider public interest or benefit.

All are legitimate aspirations which are rightly communicated to the political system and to the public service.

However it is the secrecy which has characterised some of this lobbying activity in the past that has been problematic. This has led to concerns as highlighted by the Mahon Tribunal that private interests weigh more strongly in some decisions than the wider public interest.

The extent of lobbying activity is a good measure of an engaged citizenry but it should be open to public scrutiny as part of the desirable checks and balances in a democracy. Transparency is our strongest weapon in discouraging attempts to seek to exert undue or improper influence on the conduct of policy formulation.

There is a strong public interest in identifying “who is lobbying whom about what”. My intention in designing and guiding this legislation to enactment was specifically to achieve this goal. The web based registration system that we are launching here this morning with our colleagues in the Standards Commission will bring that aspiration to reality.

2.    Collaborative approach

From the outset, my Department’s task has been twofold, firstly to formulate legislative proposals to meet the objective of registering lobbying activity in a transparent manner and secondly to address the cultural shift required to ensure successful implementation of regulation in this area.

I began this process back in December 2011. I took a very deliberate decision to devote extensive time to engage with a wide range of stakeholders as the process developed from conception, through public consultation phase to the preparation of the legislation. This collaborative approach has served to strengthen the legislation taking account of feedback from the consultation process and from best practice overseas. The aim was to develop a user friendly registration system which meets the public policy objective but minimises compliance costs in terms of both time and resources.

The Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015 has also benefited from a very informed and positive debate at all stages in the Oireachtas.

I was keen to continue to harness the experience and practical insights of stakeholders as we progress from the development of the legal framework to implementation. I established an Advisory Group of stakeholders, chaired by the Standards Commission, which will remain in place at least until the review of the operation of the Act after 1 year.

3.    Summary of the provisions of the Act

So what’s in the Act?

The Regulation of Lobbying Act is designed to provide information to the public about:

•        Who is lobbying?

•        On whose behalf is lobbying being carried out?

•        What are people lobbying about?

•       What is the intended goal of the lobbying?

and

•        Who is being lobbied?

The Act aims to do this by providing for:

  • A publicly accessible register of lobbying;
  • Balanced / proportionate regulatory powers vested in the Standards in Public Offices Commission;
  • Obligations on lobbyists to register and to provide information regularly about their lobbying activities;
  • A code of conduct on the carrying on of lobbying activities
  • A “cooling off” period of one year for former Ministers, Advisers and senior officials.

There is no fee to register as a lobbyist and members of the public will be able to view and search the register free of charge.

4.    Checks and balances

We’re striving for a delicate balance here. Since extensive communication is the essence of good policy making, the introduction of lobbying regulation cannot be allowed to obstruct the information channels to the political system and to the public service.   I will be reiterating this message to my political colleagues and to the public service. The introduction of a lobbying register should not change behaviour. We should continue to be open to lobbying approaches from the widest range of interests in society. In fact, I am hopeful that the existence of the register will help support more balanced stakeholder engagement by shining a light on who is talking to whom.

The Act also helps in this regard in containing essential checks and balances to ensure that it doesn’t have a “chilling” effect on lobbying activity. The information to be registered takes account of the need to minimise the administrative burden so not every meeting, phone call or email has to be listed individually. Rather the focus is on capturing the subject matter, the results intended to be achieved, who was contacted and the type and extent of the communications. Private affairs of individuals are excluded from the Act.

The Act also recognises that in certain limited circumstances the publication of commercially sensitive information may warrant delay in the public interest where immediate publication would prejudice seriously the competitive position of the person. Given the nature of the information to be registered, I would expect that this provision would be little required. It will be the call of the Standards Commission in the first instance who will be obliged to consider the public interest in weighing their consideration of the issue.

5.    Lessons in Effective Implementation

The international experience of lobbying regulation is uneven and we have much to learn from other countries.  Transparency International issued a report on lobbying regulation across 19 EU member states and three EU institutions earlier this month. It is heartening to see that the regulation of lobbying in Ireland placed highly on the league table – one of only 7 of the EU Members to have a statutory register. The scope of our legislation compares very well with similar regulation elsewhere. Whereas some jurisdictions seek to regulate only consultant lobbyists, our Act covers in-house lobbying by corporations, lobbying by representative bodies and advocacy groups and the activities of consultant lobbyists. We also have included a broad provision covering lobbying in relation to zoning and development of land.

Interestingly Slovenia ranks higher than Ireland in the Transparency International report but their laudable efforts seem to have floundered somewhat in the implementation with evidence of poor resourcing of the Regulator and poor compliance rates.

The important lesson for us as we start out on this road is that the legislation is not an end in itself. The real test is successful implementation and that is why my Department and the Standards Commission have been investing significant time and resources in ensuring that our lobbying registration system works well.

The initial period of implementation will give us a valuable learning process. I have no doubt that as we work the legislation, issues will emerge.  We will identify changes that could make to the system to make it more effective.  The legislation has a built in review to take place after one year.  As I have said, this legislation comes after extensive consultation and represents our view of the best system available. However greater wisdom may come through experience and if we identify changes that would improve the system, then those changes will be made.

I want to particularly commend the Standards Commission and the staff of the Commission for the tremendous effort they have put in to progressing the implementation initiative and the positive and energetic approach they bring to this task.

It is because we wish to ensure effective implementation that we are allowing a trial period of the register from now until end August where all potential registrants can trial the system, put their own internal arrangements in place to manage the filing of returns and ensure that they are ready for the go-live date of 1 September.

I am also setting the commencement date of the enforcement provisions for 12 months after commencement of the Act to allay concerns about inadvertent non-compliance as those lobbying become familiar with their legal obligations.

6. Conclusion:

This complements other initiatives in the Open Government area which I have been progressing since 2011. I believe that we have an opportunity here, in this decade of commemoration, to nurture our democracy and continue to build trust in our political system and in the institutions of the State.

I am confident that together we can work to secure its successful operation.

I am also looking forward to an engaged and responsible media using the lobbying register to help broaden and deepen the coverage, analysis and understanding of often complex public policy issues for the public at large.

Thank you.