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Friday 1 December 2023 Dublin: 2°C

SIPO refuses to name ex-government officials who asked to waive 'cooling off' period for lobbying

13 people have asked for the exemption in two years.

THE STANDARDS IN Public Office Commission (Sipo) has refused to disclose the names of former Government officials who applied to waive a “cooling off” requirement before engaging in lobbying activities.

The Journal earlier this year submitted a Freedom of Information request to the commission – which regulates lobbying – seeking the details of former officials who had applied for an exemption to the 12-month wait before they could become lobbyists.

Under the Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015, certain ‘designated public officials’, including special advisers to ministers and ministers of state, must wait for a year after they leave their roles before they can become lobbyists.

During this time, they “cannot engage in lobbying activities in specific circumstances or be employed by, or provide services to, a person carrying on lobbying activities in specific circumstances, except with the consent of the Commission”.

However, individuals can apply to Sipo for an exemption to the ‘cooling off’ period under section 22 of the Regulation of Lobbying Act.

While the commission annually releases figures on the number of people who have applied for an exemption, it does not release their names or details of who they have lobbied for.

Five former advisers to Government ministers applied to waive or reduce the one-year requirement last year, while eight former special advisers applied for a section 22 exemption in 2020.

The Journal sought correspondence to the commission under FOI from those who had sought such an exemption, including their names, employment history, and reasons for asking for the ‘cooling off’ period to be waived or reduced.

But that request was refused by Sipo, which said the information could not be given out because of stipulations in both the Lobbying Act and the Ethics in Public Office Act.

The commission said that to release details of exemption seekers would breach a duty of confidence “implicitly provided for” in the Lobbying Act, as well as a breach of privacy of the individuals who applied to Sipo that was not outweighed by public interest.

It did release several pages of correspondence between applicants and the commission from last year, though they were heavily redacted and did not disclose any details about who the applicants were.

In refusing the request for more specific details about would-be lobbyists, the commission cited section 25(2) of the Lobbying Act, which states that any person who applies for “consent under section 22″ cannot be identified in Sipo’s annual report.

The section of the Lobbying Act only refers to the preparation of Sipo’s annual report, and does not make any reference to the Freedom of Information Act.

“The commission’s view is that to disclose the redacted information in these records pursuant to an FOI request would render the prohibition in section 25(2) of the Lobbying Act completely ineffective,” a statement accompanying the FOI response said.

A spokesperson also claimed that the commission and its staff are prohibited under the Ethics in Public Office Act from disclosing information obtained from potential lobbyists.

“While it is correct that the commission may disclose such information in the performance of its functions, section 35(1) is a clear legislative indication that information obtained by the commission under the Lobbying Act is of a kind which generally attracts additional protection.”

Under the 2015 Lobbying Act, lobbyists must provide details every four months of the politicians and State officials they have engaged with and on what issues.

Those details are then published on Sipo’s Lobbying Register, which allows the public to see how politicians have been canvassed in relation to certain policies.

Sipo says the Act intends to provide greater transparency on how organisations try to influence policy-making decisions and when they provide lawmakers with information about their business activities.

  • Our investigative platform Noteworthy want to investigate lobbying by former taoisigh, ministers and special advisors. Support this project here.

However, Solidarity-People Before Profit TD Paul Murphy says that recent controversies have shown that Sipo is “toothless” when it comes to regulating the political sphere.

“The idea that we have a quite unregulated lobbying sector, with Sipo responsible for that, unfortunately rings very true,” he told The Journal.

“It’s very concerning if someone’s trying to put in a Freedom of Information request to see the picture of former government officials seeking a ‘cooling off’ period. If everything is redacted, well then that obviously completely defeats the purpose [of FOI].

“I think it’s clear the public has every right to know what Government officials are lobbying for in terms of ‘cooling off’ periods. That is 100% information that should be in the public domain.”

- Contains reporting by Tadgh McNally.

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