Lobbyists and transparency in decisionmaking

The Private Members group in the Seanad proposed an interesting motion this week. The motion was:

““That Seanad Éireann:

recognises that corporate and market forces can have a significant impact on people’s lives and public health outcomes and this provides strong justification for legislative and regulatory responses by government to reduce the influence of commercial and vested interests associated with tobacco, alcohol, gaming and other industries on public health and welfare policy;

recognises the need to provide decision makers with guidance to meet public expectations for transparency, accountability, integrity and efficacy when considering, developing, debating and implementing legislation or government regulations;

Calls on the Minister for Expenditure and Public Reform:
– To update the House on the General Scheme (Heads) of the Regulation of Lobbying Bill 2013.
– To debate with the Members of Seanad Éireann the need for transparent and accountable regulations governing Parliamentarians in relation to any engagement with representatives from tobacco, alcohol, gaming, or other commercial and vested interests.”

My speech in response to this can be found below:

First of all, I would like to welcome this motion from the Independent’s Group. It is, in my opinion, a good thing that the world of lobbying and transparency therein is fully debated by all corners in the House. In multiple debates which are running in parallel right now, from alcohol in sport to plain-packaged cigarettes to abortion we can see, day in day out, the activities of lobbyists working either covertly or overtly in favour or against a given cause.

A few weeks ago, Minister Howlin secured Government approval for the drafting, by the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel, of the Lobbying Regulation Bill. The general scheme of the Bill has been published on Department of Political Expenditure and Reform’s website. The goal of this regulation is to assure confidence in the political process while increasing the accountability of those who make decisions by bringing the policy creation process out into the open and allowing it to be subject to greater transparency than before.

The Bill as it stands will call for a register of lobbyists which will be based online. It will also call for a “cooling-off” period for up to a year for former public officials seeking to lobby former colleagues they worked with in a public body. This will hopefully prevent the equivalent of a ‘revolving door’ developing at Departments much like the troubling scenario which has been set forth by my fellow Senator Lorraine Higgins, where a former official with NAMA has gone to the private sector immediately, and become, in effect, gamekeeper turned poacher. We need to ensure that this can not and does not happen in the public sector.

The primary focus of the register of lobbyists will be on the subject matter of the communication, the purpose of the lobbying, the organisations and person lobbied and the type and intensity of lobbying. SIPO will have oversight in ensuring compliance and monitoring the activity.

While I welcome the Bill from the Independents, and the debate and discussion surrounding lobbyists, and indeed the concepts of openness and transparency being introduced into decision making, public policy and ensuring that a ‘revolving door’ doesn’t develop, I believe that the present Governmental efforts at remedying these problems are more than adequate. I believe that while the Independent group deserve praise for this motion, we must also commend the Government for approving the drafting of the Regulation of Lobbying Bill which will deliver on the commitment contained in the Programme for Government and endorses the policy approach approved by Government which will assist in assuaging public concerns that lobbying carried out ‘behind closed doors’ could override the interests of the community as a whole.

Our countermotion also strongly supports the fundamental objective of the lobbying legislation to provide appropriate transparency on “who is lobbying whom about what” which will facilitate the wider community to reach informed evidence-based judgments regarding the extent to which different interest groups are able to access and influence decision-makers

Naturally I agree that lobbying is an important part of democracy and that often they help us to frame things in a way that don’t adversely or inadvertantly impact sectors of the economy and society that weren’t initially considered in the policy-making process and, as such, they can help augment the decision making process. However it is also my core belief that these representations should be made openly. They should be made in a way which allows the public to see how many representations were made by a particular sector, a particular business and a particular lobbyist. They should be able to see who represents whom. I believe in openness and I believe in transparency and, ultimately, I believe that the process which Minister Howlin is undertaking will bring us in the right direction.

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