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Column: Lobbying has become 'a dirty word'. We want to change that

The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Brendan Howlin, explains the reasoning behind the government’s new plans to regulate lobbying and restore public faith in a vital activity.

Brendan Howlin Leader, Labour Party

EARLIER THIS WEEK ministers approved plans to draft new laws to regulate the lobbying profession which, among other things, would specifically ban former office holders from lobbying their old colleagues for a period after they step down.

Here the minister in charge of the legislation, Brendan Howlin, explains the rationale behind the proposals – and discusses the need to restore public faith in an industry that has developed a poor reputation in recent years.

GOOGLE THE WORD ‘lobbying’ and your search will yield over 27 million results. Many of these results infer an unsavoury connotation sometimes linking lobbying to bribery and corruption. Carl O’Brien, writing in the Irish Times last July, said: “No one, it seems, wants to be associated with the label. The very word is tainted, conjuring up sinister images of brown envelopes, undue influence and unethical decision-making.”

Lobbying, it seems, has become a dirty word.

That this has occurred is perhaps unsurprising. Given the scale of our financial crisis and the policy failures that gave rise to it people have been left cynical. The theatre of inquiries and tribunals have contaminated the reputation of both the lobbyists and those lobbied.

But lobbying, of itself, is not something we should shun – vibrant communication and public debate, close interaction and engagement between government and citizens are central to a well-functioning democracy.

Structured and inclusive consultation, open and honest dialogue and positive and constructive relations with all stakeholders and interests are vital to support informed and evidence-based decision making.

All this helps ensure that the policy formulation and development process benefits from full information and that all individuals, groups and interests in society have an opportunity to contribute to it. It also supports the political process in finding a balance between competing interests, in fostering consensus and in helping to guide and educate public and political debate.

Interest groups, representative bodies, industry and civil society organisations, NGOs, charities and third party professional lobbyists all provide crucial input and feedback to the political and public administration systems through communication of the views and concerns of the public to Government.

However, they also clearly seek to influence the policy and decision-making process in order to align it to their 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. It is incumbent upon us, as Government, to ensure that such engagements occur only in an open and transparent fashion.

‘I want to help rebuild public trust in the political system’

When we took office, we committed in the Programme for Government to introducing a statutory register of lobbyists and rules concerning the practice of lobbying and on Tuesday of this week, I was pleased that the Cabinet approved the drafting of the Regulation of Lobbying Bill 2013.

Significantly greater openness and transparency will be achieved by regulating those involved in the important process of engagement between the political and administrative systems and all sectors of society who communicate directly or indirectly on specific policy, legislative matters or prospective decisions.

In bringing forward these proposals I want to help rebuild public trust in the political system by throwing light on its interaction with those who seek to shape and influence policy across all sections of society.

The Bill provides for the establishment of a statutory web-based register of lobbying activity with a focus on ease of use. A regulator will be appointed to manage the implementation of the register and monitor compliance. As part of this function the regulator will also provide guidance to lobbyists and have the powers to investigate breaches of the Bill. Pending a wider review of Ethics legislation, I intend that Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO) will act as the regulator.

Communication whether directly or indirectly communicated on specific policy, legislative matters or prospective decisions with designated public officials or office holders will be registered.

The Bill provides for a cooling off period of one year, during which designated former public officials seeking to lobby their former colleagues in the public body in which they previously worked (or in a further public body to which such colleagues have subsequently transferred) will be obliged to apply to the regulator. The regulator will be obliged to consider the period of employment in the public office, the nature of the activities undertaken and impose conditions on the employment accordingly.

This approach allows the regulator to permit, for example, the take up of employment but to impose restrictions in relation to engagement in certain activities rather than a blanket ban.

Public contact with TDs is still a cornerstone

Of course, normal citizen interaction with their local political representatives is a fundamental democratic right and this Bill will not restrict such contact. Nor will advocacy in the public benefit by charities be precluded.

Lobbying activity forms an important element of the democratic process and provides both Government and decision makers with an understanding of the how prospective decisions may effect both individuals and organisations. It leads to greater openness and transparency on public policy formulation and provides valuable input to the decision making process

This Bill will encourage such participation in the decision making process, but ensure that it is done in a fully open manner, guaranteeing that “lobbying” is no longer a dirty word.

Brendan Howlin is the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, and a Labour Party TD for Wexford.

Read: Former politicians will face temporary ban on lobbying under new rules

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Brendan Howlin  / Leader, Labour Party

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