I move: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”
The purpose of the Public Sector Standards Bill is to provide a robust and effective framework for identifying, disclosing and managing conflicts of interest as well as providing for a streamlined and consistent approach to ethics legislation across the public sector. It will ensure that Ireland’s disclosure and conflict of interest framework corresponds to international best practice and will be integral to the quality and efficacy of public governance and the addressing of corruption risks.

This significant piece of legislation was developed following a root and branch examination of our current system and international best practice and it will ensure that Ireland’s disclosure and conflict of interest framework corresponds to best practice on the international stage.
I strongly believe this legislation is key to ensuring the quality and efficacy of our public administration and the addressing of corruption risks.

The Public Sector Standards Bill 2015 consolidates and enhances the existing outdated and piecemeal legislation and gives effect to the recommendations of the Tribunals and the Standards in Public Office Commission. For the first time, a uniform framework of ethical regulation will apply at national and local level in Ireland. There will now be a consistency of approach to ethical obligations across the public sector, and, in a new departure, over-arching integrity principles for public officials will be enshrined in legislation.

A dedicated Public Sector Standards Commissioner will be appointed, who will be empowered to initiate investigations even in the absence of the receipt of a complaint where there is a suspected contravention of the legislation, or if it is in the public interest to do so. This own initiative investigative power is a reform that the Commission has long called for.
The Commissioner will be equipped with the tools to ensure there is meaningful engagement and compliance with the legislation. He or she will have enhanced powers of investigation which will ensure the Commissioner is empowered to rigorously examine and investigate potential breaches of the Bill. The scope of civil sanctions available to the Commissioner has also been enhanced. The Bill also grants the Commissioner the power to prosecute offences summarily and issue fines to those not in compliance with their declaration requirements.

The personal and material scope of declarable interests for public officials will be significantly extended in line with the Mahon Tribunal’s recommendations. The disclosures of senior public officials will be published on the Commissioner’s website, to ensure effective transparency and scrutiny of interests. Private declarable interests are also mandated for senior officials for certain interests, such as liabilities over a certain threshold and gifts given in a private capacity, to be disclosed periodically on a confidential basis.

Ad hoc disclosures must be made by all public officials if and when a conflict of interest arises. This approach is a major innovation in ensuring the disclosure process focuses attention on actual and perceived conflicts of interest as they arise for public officials and extends the personal scope of such disclosures to include the interests of connected parties such as relatives or business partners. The Bill also prohibits the use of insider information, on the seeking by public officials of benefits to further their private interests, and on local elected representatives from dealing professionally with land in certain circumstances.

Of course, no legislation can eliminate corruption, but this Bill will ensure that there is a robust framework in place to ensure that conflicts are appropriately identified and controlled. For control and identification to be successful it will be crucial that public officials can make skilled judgements as to what in their particular role and personal circumstances could give rise to a conflict. The role of Commissioner in education and research together with strengthened codes of conduct and statutory principles will ensure that the consideration of standards will be a significant factor for those performing public office.
The publication of this Bill marks the culmination of an extensive programme of reform I have undertaken since 2011. Real and meaningful progress has been made so far, with the Freedom of Information Act restored, legislation to protect whistle-blowers and to regulate lobbying, as well as expanding the remit of the Ombudsman among others.

I now turn to the Bill before us and will briefly go through each Part.

Part 1 of the Bill contains preliminary and general matters, including, within sections 1 and 2, the short title of the Bill, commencement arrangements and definitions. An interpretation of the expression “material interest in a matter” is provided in section 3, and the term “public official” is defined in section 4. For the purposes of this Bill, public officials are divided into three categories (A, B and C); these are described in section 5. The meaning of the term “public body” is outlined in section 6.
Section 7 contains seven categories of declarable interests. Section 8 sets out the interests which are private declarable interests.

Section 9 provides that nothing in the Act will prevent a person from being a candidate in an election for either House of the Oireachtas, a local authority, or the European Parliament.

Part 2 of the Bill contains three chapters. Chapter 1 begins with section 10 providing for the maintenance by public officials of proper standards of integrity and concern for the public interest, and to use resources efficiently and effectively.

Section 11, prohibits a public official from seeking or exacting from any person, other than the official’s employer, any benefit, remuneration, fee, reward or other favour for anything done or not done by virtue of his or her employment.

Sections 12 and 13 provides for the ad hoc declarations that are required of public officials where a conflict of interest arises.

Section 14 prohibits a public official from using confidential information obtained in his or her capacity as a public official to improperly further, or seek to further, his or her private interests or those of a connected person.

Section 15 prohibits members of local authorities from acquiring or disposing of land or dealing in any professional capacity with land during their term of office and for two years afterwards in certain circumstances.

Chapter 2, contains four sections, 16–19 which set out the obligations on public officials to furnish evidence of compliance with the Taxation Acts.

Chapter 3 concerns ‘Disclosure of Interests’. Section 20 makes provision for the determination of whether a public or private declarable interest is a declarable interest at any time during the declaration period. Section 21 sets out the obligations on Category A and B public officials to provide a declaration of interests.

Section 22 provides for the declaration of certain interests by Category C public officials.

Section 23 provides that an official shall not be required to submit a declaration statement if there has been no significant change during that period and no ad hoc disclosures have been made. Section 23 also empowers the Commissioner to determine the format and means whereby statements of declarable interests are to be furnished thus allowing for the development of an online declaration system to be considered in due course.

Section 24 provides that statements and ad hoc disclosures furnished in accordance with the Bill will be retained for 15 years. Section 25 provides that certain documents and information regarding the appointment of a special adviser to a Minister of the Government or to a Minister of State must be laid before each House of the Oireachtas.

Part 3 contains six sections. Section 26 provides for the establishment of the Office of the Public Sector Standards Commissioner and the position of the Public Sector Standards Commissioner and provides for the functions of the Commissioner.

Section 27 provides for the dissolution of the Standards in Public Office Commission. At this juncture, I would like to publically acknowledge the work of the Commission and thank the Members of the Commission for their dedication and commitment in carrying out their duties.

Section 28 provides for the appointment of the Deputy Public Sector Standards Commissioner.

Section 29 makes provision for the issuing of advice by the Commissioner to a person to whom the Act applies regarding steps that could be taken by the person to comply with the Act.
Section 30 provides for the development by the Commissioner of a model code of conduct applicable to all public officials.
Section 31 provides for the preparation of annual and other reports by the Commissioner.

Part 4 contains six chapters. Chapter 1 contains section 32, which lists the offences in the Bill. The criminal sanctions for non-compliance with the Bill are robust in nature and will act as a strong deterrence against the commission of offences by public officials.

Chapter 2 deals with ‘Complaints’. If a person considers that another person has contravened a provision of the Act, he or she can make a complaint to the Commissioner under section 33. Section 34 provides for the dismissal of complaints by the Commissioner in certain circumstances. Section 35 permits the Commissioner to request a member of staff to carry out a preliminary inquiry into a complaint, and makes provision for the conduct of preliminary inquiries.

Chapter 3 deals with investigations by the Deputy Commissioner.
Section 36 provides for the referring of a matter to the Deputy Commissioner for investigation where there has been a complaint made alleging that a contravention of the Act has occurred. An investigation may also be requested in the absence of a complaint where the Commissioner is of the opinion that the Act has been contravened, or it is in the public interest.

Section 37 permits the Deputy Commissioner to appoint investigation officers and makes provision for the conduct of investigations with Section 38 setting out the powers of the Deputy Commissioner in this regard.

Section 39 requires the Deputy Commissioner to prepare a report of the investigation and furnish it to the Commissioner. This section also makes provisions for the actions that may be taken by the Commissioner on receipt of the report.

Chapter 4 contains section 40, which provides for the conduct of the oral hearing procedure by the Commissioner and for the Commissioner to make findings of fact at the conclusion of an inquiry.

Chapter 5 concerns miscellaneous provisions in relation to Chapters 2, 3 and 4 and contains six sections. Section 41 provides for the privileges and immunities of witnesses and also concerns liens and expenses.

Section 42 provides for the absolute privilege of documents, reports and statements of the Commissioner, Deputy Commissioner, an authorised official or an investigation officer.

Section 43 provides for admissibility of certain evidence gathered in the course of an investigation.

Section 44 provides the Commissioner with powers relating to the discovery of documents.
Section 45 provides that a person is required to preserve a relevant document or information related to an inquiry, investigation, or hearing, or intended inquiry, investigation, or hearing until the process and any related proceedings are completed.

Section 46 prohibits a person from disclosing information obtained by him or her in the exercise of powers conferred by the Act or by being present at a meeting or a sitting of the Commissioner, the Deputy Commissioner, an authorised official or an investigation officer held in private, subject to certain exceptions.

Chapter 6, contains four sections. Section 47 sets out the actions to be taken by the Commissioner following an investigation.

Section 48 deals with the costs of persons appearing before the Commissioner or an investigation officer, while section 49 provides for the award of costs by the Commissioner against a complainant in certain circumstances.
Section 50 makes provision for the preparation of a report of the Commissioner as a result of an investigation, the publication of that report, and its furnishing to the relevant people. Where the report relates to a member of the Houses of the Oireachtas, it shall be laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas.

Part 5 deals with the prosecution of offences, which are provided for in section 51.

Section 52 concerns fixed payments orders which may be served by the Commissioner when a person has failed to submit a declaration statement.

Section 53 describes the penalties on conviction.

Section 54 makes provision for other consequences of a conviction for an indictable offence under this Act, namely disqualification from holding office as a public official or a particular category of public official.
This section also makes provision for the suspension of a member of the Houses of the Oireachtas by the relevant House.

Part 6 contains four sections. Section 55 provides for sanctions that may be issued by the Commissioner following a contravention of the Act.

Section 56 makes provision for the suspension of a member of a House of the Oireachtas from the service of that House for a period not exceeding 12 months. Section 57 provides for automatic disqualification of a public official from appointment to a position as a public official in the case of failure to be tax compliant. Section 58 provides for the validity of acts of a public body not affected by reason of contravention or certain disqualification or suspension.

Part 7 of the Bill concerns the ‘Outside Appointments Board’. Section 59 provides for the duties of a public official regarding post-term employment once he or she has ceased to be a public official. The establishment of the Outside Appointments Board on a statutory footing is provided for in section 60.
Part 8 consists of six sections. Sections 61 – 63 provide for repeals, the making of regulations and orders by the Minister and for expenses incurred in the administration of the Act to be paid out of moneys provided by the Oireachtas.

Section 64 is technical dealing with the adaptation of references.

Section 65 enables any complaints made, or investigations initiated before the commencement of this Act to be completed.

Section 66 sets out provisions concerning the operation of Schedules 1 and 2.

Schedules 1 and 2 set out the persons to whom statements of ad hoc disclosures and statements of declarable interests are to be made, respectively.

A number of amendments have been identified for Committee Stage of the Bill in order to ensure that the framework proposed is as robust and as practical as possible. These include ensuring that complaints concerning the Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner may be made and investigated, clarifying the power of the Commissioner to order the production of documents, and changes regarding the issuing of tax clearance certificates as agreed conjunction with the Office of the Revenue Commissioners. Additionally, further consideration will be given to the Report of the Committee on Finance Public Expenditure and Reform, prepared following the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Bill, in the context of Committee Stage amendments to the Bill.

I hope that the Bill will receive broad support from all Members of this House. It is our duty to do our utmost to provide today’s citizens with a Government and a public sector that are an exemplar of transparency and accountability. I welcome the views of the Members on the provisions of the Bill. I am open to any constructive suggestions on how the Bill can be further improved.