Watchdog wants politicians to declare ‘liabilities’

POLITICIANS and public servants who owe substantial sums to banks should have to declare such liabilities in the public interest, the state’s ethics watchdog has said.

The Standards in Public Office Commission, known as SIPO, also called for a comprehensive whistleblower’s charter to protect those exposing corruption.

In its latest annual report published yesterday, SIPO said that public officials should have to declare “liabilities” such as substantial bank loans and mortgages.

Under existing laws, “registrable interests” such as shares, directorships, land and gifts have to be declared. But the laws do not require disclosure of a person’s liabilities, and SIPO says this should be rectified.

“It is clear to the Standards Commission that a public representative or public servant who has significant liabilities to, eg, a financial institution, could be materially influenced in the course of performing their duties where such duties involve dealing with that financial institution and where the actions of the public servant could conceivably affect their own interests,” SIPO said.

“It is therefore in the public interest that such liabilities be appropriately disclosed.”

The lack of such a requirement saw several ministers individually queried as to whether they had loans with the likes of Anglo following the implementation of the bank guarantee scheme in September 2008.

SIPO pointed out that the law governing the National Asset Management Agency requires its staff to provide a statement of their liabilities as well as assets.

SIPO said similar requirements should be introduced for all public officials.

It also called for a whistleblower’s charter, saying that a “major factor” in the low level of complaints it received was “fear on the part of potential whistleblowers of the consequences of reporting wrongdoing”.

Rather than opt for a single, all-encompassing whistleblower’s charter, the Government has taken a “sectoral approach”, introducing separate legislation in areas such as health and justice to protect whistleblowers. Public interest organisations such as Transparency International have criticised this approach, describing it as “deeply flawed”.

SIPO said yesterday it agreed with Transparency International, and called for “a comprehensive public interest disclosure and whistleblower protection law” to be introduced “as a matter of urgency”.

“As well as the specific protections which would be afforded, such a step would send out a clear signal that wrongdoing is not to be tolerated and that reporting in good faith of wrongdoing is to be strongly encouraged,” SIPO said.

“The piecemeal approach to introducing protection for whistleblowers may have created confusion as to whether protection is available or indeed whether there is a real commitment to encouraging whistleblowers to come forward,” it added.

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