Political corruption watchdog says bill may undermine independence

The State’s political corruption watchdog has warned that a proposed bill could undermine its independence and effectively create an “amnesty” situation for officials facing investigations, unless key shortcomings are addressed.

Political corruption watchdog says bill may undermine independence

The Standards in Public Office (Sipo) Commission raised the concerns in a detailed document to Public Expenditure and Reform Minister Brendan Howlin just a week after an RTÉ programme exposed alleged ongoing corruption in the political system.

The 13-page file was sent to Mr Howlin in response to his proposed Public Sector Standards Bill, published on June 18, which is intended to beef up the current transparency system, lobbying, and ethics legislation.

However, while welcoming a number of the bill’s recommendations, including linking existing ethics rules into one law, increasing Sipo’s scope in examining conflicts of interest, giving the group the right to investigate individuals before complaints are made, and providing more clarity on what politicians owe and who they owe money to, the watchdog said problems remain.

In its response to Mr Howlin, which was published yesterday and will be considered as part of potential changes to the bill before it becomes law, Sipo said despite the improvements outlined, its “independence” would be called into question if re-appointment and funding issues were not addressed.

It said the bill allowed the sitting minister to decide on its resources and for additional expenditure to be agreed only if signed off by two ministers, despite the fact “it is clear additional resources will be required, particularly in terms of staffing”.

The group’s document stressed “the independence of the commission would not be sufficiently demonstrated if it were to have to seek resources from the minister” instead of a cross-party committee, insisting that the latter option should be considered.

In a further concern, it said unless further changes were made to the bill, its introduction could create a gap between the old and new legislation, which could mean “complaints on matters done prior to enactment” could not be pursued, noting “such a situation could be perceived as an amnesty” of people “who could otherwise have been found to have contravened ethics acts”.

The issues will now be considered by Mr Howlin before the bill goes before the Dáil in the coming weeks.

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