Politicians and top officials should face fines for failure to comply with disclosure obligations, while also being forced to submit more detailed accounts of their assets and debts, a review has found.
The review of Ireland’s statutory framework for ethics in public office, published last week by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, recommended that a range of “appropriate sanctions” be developed “with fixed fines for breaches of disclosure obligations”.
The recommendation for new powers comes after two junior ministers in the Coalition Government, Robert Troy and Damien English, had to resign in the last year following controversies surrounding their disclosures with regulatory and planning obligations, respectively.
Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Paschal Donohoe later recused himself from the reform of ethics legislation, which falls to his Department – including the publication of this review – after failing to properly disclose postering paid for by a businessman friend in two general elections.
Politicians, officials, should be fined for failing to comply with disclosure obligations, ethics review finds
In a wide-ranging series of proposals, the review finds that politicians and senior public servants should have greater disclosure obligations – including making confidential disclosures of their liabilities, income, assets, and gifts when they exceed a certain amount. Unlike current disclosure obligations, such as the register of Oireachtas members interests, these would not be publicly disclosed.
For both junior and senior ministers, as well as ministerial advisers and secretaries general of departments – and chairs of Oireachtas committees – an additional disclosure requirement of any liability over €50,000 is mooted – with an exception for mortgages on private homes.
Meanwhile, additional disclosures of interests would occur in relation to the interests of spouses, civil partners or children which could “materially influence public functions”.
“Government ministers and elected representatives are accountable to the Oireachtas in the first instance and ultimately to the electorate,” the report found. “This justifies wider public access to their declarations of interests so that citizens can be in a position to make an informed choice in democratic elections.”
Under a potential regime sketched out in the report, this would also apply to TDs, Senators, MEPs, members of the judiciary and local authority officials, as well as higher ranking civil servants in local authorities and the civil and public services.
It recommends that a number of broad categories be created with differing disclosure obligations, which then could be updated when someone takes up a position, and then “as required” – it also recommends this could be done on an electronic basis, rather than under the current paper-based system.
The review also recommends that legislation should address the issue of contracts between politicians and public bodies – such as those with local authorities for rental payments – while balancing the need for “maximum transparency” with individuals’ rights to privacy, such as tenants. This issue was referred to the review following the emergence of such contracts held by Mr Troy, who ultimately resigned last summer. The privacy issue was flagged by the Dáil committee on members’ interests, the review notes.
New statutory prohibitions should also be introduced, the review found, barring the use of insider information or seeking by public officials of benefits to further their own interests. Rules barring local representatives from dealing with land should also be carried over into national legislation and maintained in any consolidated framework, if found.
The review, which will feed into new ethics legislation the Government has committed to bringing forward, also recommends an overhaul of the system within the Standards in Public Office commission (Sipo) for investigating breaches of statute. While “rigorous”, it has proven “lengthy and cumbersome” even when dealing with clear-cut breaches. The current structure of Sipo, it finds, “can be unwieldy” with commission members busy in their primary roles and procedures becoming “drawn-out” and “difficult to bring to completion”. It recommends that a restructured commission be led by an executive commissioner supported by a board, as well as potential new roles for a Deputy Commissioner.
The review also recommends that new laws should be introduced allowing for a “unified and consolidated regime” for standards in public life governing both national and local Government levels. It also recommends that a “model code of conduct” outlining high-level principles and values underpinning ethical conduct should be put on a statutory footing – with lower-order sectoral codes based upon it depending on the circumstances of the sectors concerned.
In considering so-called “cooling off” periods, it argues that new legislation “must be carefully targeted” to address “specific concerns” that are not already covered by lobbying laws. It also finds that the Attorney General and Department of Justice should examine if new proposals should apply to the judiciary as well as the political world and Civil Service.