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'Government distrust over water charges policy shows public want effective lobbying rules'

Transparency Ireland said the new lobbying register doesn’t go far enough.

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THE ANTI-CORRUPTION GROUP Transparency Ireland (TI) says while the introduction of the planned online lobbying register is to be welcomed, it will not capture as much information as it should.

It said efforts to safeguard the public interest in decision-making are “piecemeal and ineffective”.

In a new report, ‘Influence and Integrity: Lobbying and its Regulation in Ireland’, released today, finds that 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.

Politicians  

The Registration of Lobbying Bill 2014 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. It is due to be discussed in the Dáil tomorrow.

The report finds that significant lobbying efforts are hidden from public scrutiny and include ‘political insiders’ using their connections to access and seek to influence decision-makers.

TI said they are very concerned about lobbying ‘from the inside’ by private interests through advisory or expert groups and task forces.

Concealed interests

It said it is concerned 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.

“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,” said the group.

While TI said that the planned register will increase transparency, it said it doesn’t go far enough.

Lobbyists will be required to file online returns on their lobbying activities three times a year. “For the first time, the public will be able to see who is trying to influence whom,” it said.

Lobbyists

However, it is disappointed that 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 report’s lead researcher, Nuala Haughey said “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”. 

The group is calling for a number of changes, including that 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.

It wants to see financial data on sources of client or donor income published on the register, which it said would allow the public to better follow the money trail in politics.

It also wants lobbyists to disclose any activities undertaken on behalf of political parties, elected officials or election candidates.

Transparency Ireland wants the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO) to be given a legal responsibility to conduct inspections and audits of online returns made by lobbyists and it wants Government to 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.

Chief Executive of TI, John Devitt said:

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.

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