Good morning and welcome to Farmleigh House.
I am very grateful to all of you for taking the time to participate in this morning’s seminar on lobbying regulation. This initiative is a central element of the Government’s programme of political reform and is clearly a hugely important issue not only to those likely to be affected by it but also all those with an interest and commitment to strengthening public governance in Ireland.
It is useful to reflect briefly on the wider backdrop to the proposals.
It is a concern that one of the legacies of the economic and political events of the past few years has been a significant loss of trust in Government, in politics and in the institutions of the State.
As we approach the centenary of the many landmark events leading up to the foundation of the State, all of us have a responsibility to assess the current health of our democracy and to strive to ensure it lives up to the ideals of those who contributed so much to its foundation.
How do we rebuild trust? Well firstly, government broadly defined needs to be in touch with the objectives, priorities, concerns and fears of ordinary people. It needs to be open to outside interests and ideas. All of the organisations participating at today’s event and all interest groups more generally make a valuable contribution to the functioning of the State and our democratic institutions by acting as a conduit and channel of communications between the citizen and the many different aspects or faces of the State.
Your organisations have – albeit to different degrees and with different levels of intensity – dialogue and contact with various arms and organs of the State regarding many different aspects of the business of government and legitimately and entirely reasonably want to influence decisions that may affect you and the sectors and interests in society you represent.
We, the Government and the wider government system in turn, need access to the knowledge, expertise and perspectives of those who represent the collective views of individual members of our community.
“Seeking to influence”
As is evident from the attendance here today, such organisations take many shapes and forms including interest groups, representative bodies, trade unions, NGOs, charities and of course lobbying firms. All of the above organisations- all of you – sometimes to a greater and sometimes to a lesser extent are involved in exercising a fundamental democratic right – seeking to influence
This activity may sometimes be properly defined as “lobbying”, in other instances terms such as “advocacy”, “public affairs” or “public interest campaigning” may be more appropriate – but the ultimate purpose and objective is identical, that is to persuade. Whatever term you might choose to employ for this process, it provides Government with important insights, valuable information, new policy perspectives and crucial debate on different policy options.
It is therefore a force for the good and an essential element of the democratic process. It has a key role to play in any democratic society.
Case for Lobbying Regulation
Why then do we have a Programme for Government commitment to introduce a statutory register of lobbyists and rules governing the conduct of lobbying?
In the first instance although the Programme for Government commitment pre-dates the findings and recommendations of the Mahon Tribunal published earlier this year regulation of lobbying is an important response to the concern that secrecy and undue influence created an environment which facilitated corrupt practices which if not addressed can have a corrosive impact on the legitimacy of the political system. The Mahon Tribunal, therefore, recommended the regulation of lobbying to secure significantly greater transparency surrounding the lobbying process and to secure the implementation of appropriate professional standards governing the conduct of lobbyists.
However, in view of its findings the Mahon Tribunal’s recommendations on lobbying focused on mitigating the corruption risk that was revealed in relation to activities of a particular consultant lobbyist.
My proposals seek to go further than discouraging behaviour that is illegal and is in any event a matter for the criminal law.
Greater openness and transparency on public policy formulation and decision making is central to securing more effective public governance and in helping to bridge the “trust” deficit which I spoke of earlier. The key objective in regulating advocacy and lobbying and putting in place a register of lobbyists is to make information available to the public on the identity of those seeking to influence public policy decisions. This can neatly be characterised as shedding light on the key question of “who is trying to influence whom about what”
It inspires one of the most significant aspects of these proposals the proposed comprehensive or universal approach which focuses on capturing the “activity” within the regulatory system rather than seeking to apply rules and regulations to specific categories of “lobbyists”. Although this can be done in either a broad or narrow fashion it does seem to create a significant risk that definitional gaps will be exploited and unregulated ‘back-door’ lobbying will be enabled.
The establishment of a lobbying register is intended to allow the public and wider civil society to reach informed, evidence-based judgments about the extent to which different interest groups are able to access, and influence, decision making. The outcome we are reaching for in establishing an appropriate regulatory system for lobbying is that it will succeed in assuaging concerns that lobbying carried out “behind closed doors” overrides the interests of the community as a whole and is not properly balanced by providing access for alternative perspectives.
This can be characterised as ensuring to a greater extent the “contestability” of the assessments provided to Ministers and their senior civil servants and advisers by outside interests. This, in turn, should help ensure better or at least more informed decision making and contribute to the emergence of a stronger culture of policy and decision-making where well evidenced and well grounded innovation is supported.
The value of regulation of lobbying in fostering a culture of integrity is strongly advocated by the Organisation for Co-operation and Development (OECD) – whose 10 Principles for Transparency and Integrity in Lobbying guided the consultation my Department undertook on this issue. The OECD state that:
…a sound framework for transparency in lobbying is crucial to safeguard the public interest, promote a level playing field for business and avoid capture by vocal interest groups…
Increase public understanding and acceptance
While regulation will provide a framework for holding those engaged in lobbying accountable for the manner in which they conduct this activity it is also expected to increase public understanding and indeed acceptance of the activity. It is hoped that public perceptions of the lobbying profession will improve with the introduction of an effective regulatory system which will help contribute to ensure that lobbying loses its somewhat negative connotation. Indeed it is hoped that regulation will further accelerate the professionalisation of lobbying in Ireland.
Regulation of lobbying will clearly have very important implications for the operation of the interface between the political and administrative system and the broad community of interest groups. The potential impact on long-established channels of communication and influencing and, indeed, on our broader political culture is a matter on which I am sure there are diverse opinions and which is likely to give rise to some debate.
We can of course draw on the positive example of the significant enhancement in openness and transparency brought about the enactment of Freedom of Information in 1997. In addition we can also assess the lessons from those jurisdictions that have a long experience of the operation of lobbying registers such as, for example, in the State of Ontario Canada, in respect of which our distinguished guest the Integrity Commissioner from Ontario will speak later this morning. With many years experience of the practical application of regulation of lobbying, Lynn is in a position to provide us with experienced observations relating to these key implementation issues. Her contribution will undoubtedly greatly contribute to an informed discussion here today. We are fortunate in that we can look to other jurisdictions and take the best of their approaches, while learning lessons also from their experience.
Progress to Date
In setting the scene for today’s proceedings, it is useful to quickly review progress in this process to date. A review of international approaches to the regulation of lobbying was commenced by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform late last year. This involved analysis of the regulatory approach in those different jurisdictions where it is currently in place.
High-quality academic work and comparative analysis between jurisdictions has also been done in this area. The contribution of Raj Chari, John Hogan and Gary Murphy in particular has been very beneficial in informing and developing our thinking in this area. I am delighted that John and Gary are able to join us today to share their expertise and provide their perspectives on the way forward..
Reflecting the serious concern we all share about previous malpractice which has come to light through, for example, the Mahon Tribunal mechanism, there is also a convergence evident between the content of the four Private Members Bills published by the Labour Party since 1999, the draft Lobbying Bill published by Fine Gael in its “New Politics” document in 2010 and the Private Members Bill published by Fianna Fail earlier this year and submitted as part of the consultation process. These legislative initiatives have also guided the development of the proposals, including the adoption of a comprehensive approach.
From the outset and in keeping with the broad consensus evident in these legislative proposals, I have sought to progress consideration of the appropriate design and operation of a regulatory regime in consultation with all interested parties wishing to contribute their views and assessments.
I am, therefore, very grateful to you and the organisations you represent for engaging with the consultative process and providing your detailed views on key features of a regulatory system for lobbying.
From an early stage I have signalled the work that the Department was undertaking in preparing a policy paper as well as the purpose of the paper in hopefully providing a clear and evidence-based basis for examining and consulting further on the options for legislation in this area.
Today’s event is intended as the next step in that process by providing you with the opportunity to give your initial views on the key issues discussed in the paper.
My objective is that legislative proposals in this area are guided and informed by the insights of those who will have to operate it and work within the parameters of the regulatory scheme. Continued constructive engagement and collaboration from stakeholders is central to meeting this objective. I should say at this point that I am very grateful to Dr Elaine Byrne from Trinity for agreeing to chair the panel discussion and the open forum planned for later this morning.
Your discussions in the course of this morning are likely to encompass some significant issues including matters relating to the implementation of an effective and efficient regulatory system which were raised in the submissions received by my Department and in some of the meetings that officials had with various contributors to the consultation process.
I know that my Department will be giving a presentation as part of today’s proceedings guiding you in detail through the analysis, main conclusions and recommendations contained in the policy paper.
In summary, the purpose of the policy paper is to set out proposals for the establishment of a regulatory regime for lobbyists in line with the Programme for Government commitments. In overall terms, this paper examines what activity should be the subject of regulation through the introduction of a lobbying register and rules governing the conduct of lobbying. The paper has been published to communicate to the public, and to all interested parties, the main elements of the proposed policy approach. It highlights a key objective for the proposed regulatory system – which I am sure will inspire some discussion and debate today – the essential requirement to avoid having any adverse impact on normal citizen engagement with the political or administrative system.
In addition to informing the general public on the key aspects of the proposed regulatory system, the publication of this policy paper is also intended to allow stakeholders to provide their views on key implementation issues. The goal of the seminar is to provide a forum for this discussion which, of course, I would expect to continue particularly once you have an opportunity to review the paper in detail and assess the practical implications and challenges from the proposed approach.
I would expect in due course once legislative proposals have been developed – and subject to Government approval – to submit the policy paper and the General Scheme of a Lobbying Regulation Bill to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Finance, Public. Expenditure and Reform for their views. This process of early pre-legislative scrutiny was undertaken in relation to my proposals for the whistleblower protection legislation. The committee has taken evidence form a number of experts and interested parties to inform and guide its assessment of the proposed legislation.
It is encouraging to look elsewhere and to see that the introduction of lobbying regulation in other jurisdictions has generally been accepted as a fact of life and has – sometime following the need for some subsequent review and adjustment of the regulatory scheme – not given rise to any significant adverse unintended effects.
In conclusion, thank you again for your attendance here today. I hope you find the event productive and informative. As I have said the purpose of the seminar is to facilitate an early debate on the policy proposals and there will be further opportunities for you to input your views into the development of legislative proposals.
I wish you well in your deliberations and discussions.