The Government’s new lobbying reforms have been accused of being “technical rather than substantive” and it has been warned that much further action is needed to “restore public confidence in policy making”.
The new Regulation of Lobbying (Amendment) Bill 2022 has been published by the Government, and allows for fines of up to €25,000 to be dished out for breaches of the “cooling off period”, where former ministers, special advisors or senior officials cannot become lobbyists for at least a year.
The Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO) has long called for reforms of legislation and the power available to it, and the Government has said these new laws will ensure the way lobbying is regulated will remain “up to date and fit for purpose”.
These calls for reform of SIPO had been renewed in other forums in the wake of the controversy around Fianna Fáil minister Robert Troy and his registering of rental properties last month.
In publishing the legislation, Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Michael McGrath said that lobbying is a “vital component in maintaining a healthy and well-functioning democracy”.
“However, transparency is critically important in order to allow citizens to follow the activities and potential influence of interest groups, representative bodies and industry and civil society organisations on policy and funding discussions and decisions,” he said.
An all-party Oireachtas committee had scrutinised the general scheme of the legislation, and recommended that former TDs and Senators who become lobbyists should not enjoy special privileges such as permission to enter the Oireachtas without an invitation.
The Government had previously committed to reforming laws around lobbying, following the controversy surrounding former Junior Finance Minister Michael D’Arcy. Fine Gael’s Mr D’Arcy stepped down as a senator to join a funds lobbying group just a few months after he had held his finance portfolio.
At the time, Taoiseach Micheál Martin told the Dáil that he is "not happy, or in any way comfortable" with politicians leaving public office to join interest groups.
Under current laws, ministers, special advisors and senior public officials must have a “cooling off” period of one year after they leave office, during which they cannot engage in lobbying or work for a group carrying out lobbying activities.
Last year, five former special advisors in Government roles applied for a waiving of this cooling-off period. There have been 21 such applications since the Lobbying Act was enacted in 2015.
Where former ministers or advisors seek to become lobbyists before a year has passed, they must abide by any conditions attached to SIPO allowing them to take up the new job under the new legislation.
John Devitt, chief executive of Transparency International Ireland, said that while new provisions around the cooling off period are welcome, “other loopholes have not been closed”.
Mr Devitt said his organisation had called for an outright ban on members of the Oireachtas or local authorities from acting as lobbyists or receiving any income for the purpose of influencing public policy. It also called for an extension of the standard cooling off period from one year to two years, as is the case in Canada.
“Neither of these proposals have been adopted and it appears that the bulk of the amendments are technical rather than substantive,” he said. “If we are to restore public confidence in policy-making or prevent damaging controversies, we need to go much further than introducing technical reforms.”