Republic to regulate lobbying

trade unionists sinn fein dublin Michael McKernan reviews how the Registration of Lobbying Bill will affect the policy process in the South.

After three years of detailed policy formulation and widespread public consultation, the Irish Government’s lobbying Bill has now been introduced in the Dáil. The draft legislation – the Registration of Lobbying Bill 2014 – was published by Public Expenditure and Reform Minister Brendan Howlin in June of this year and it is expected to commence its legislative passage through the Oireachtas in the autumn.

The regulation of lobbying activity has risen as a political priority in many western democracies in recent years although relatively few have actually got as far as putting new regulation on the statute book. Nonetheless, the new Bill has drawn heavily from experience and best practice across the OECD group.

Essentially, the concern across the political class is that the quality of democracy itself is threatened by powerful lobbyists who influence policy- and decision-making without any real transparency. Similarly, there is concern that those politicians and senior officials who actually take decisions do so without any clarity or accountability around how they may have been influenced by professional lobbyists or interest groups.

Howlin’s objective in regulating lobbying is not so much to curb or curtail lobbying activity – which he acknowledges “has an important role to play” – but rather to “rebuild public trust in the political system by throwing light on its interaction with those who seek to shape and influence policy across all sections of society.”

The Government sums up the purpose of the legislation as establishing an online registration process which will allow citizens to see “who is lobbying whom about what.” The draft legislation attempts to define the ‘who’, ‘whom’ and ‘what’.

Howlin’s proposals will require lobbyists to register formally on the new online system – to be overseen by the existing Standards in Public Office Commission watchdog – and to complete three returns per year. They will also be required to enter details of all interactions they have with elected representatives and certain senior officials. The commission will develop a code of conduct for lobbyists and have the power to punish those who fail to adhere to it.

There will also be a cooling-off period before which certain senior officials who have left public office can engage in lobbying activity.

The new Bill will not cover the day-to-day representations that individual constituents may make to their local TDs or individuals seeking planning permission for their own private dwelling. However, all lobbying activity around land rezoning, no matter how localised or individual, is covered. The Bill also lists a range of other exemptions to the registration requirements e.g. where there are safety or other significant public interest concerns.

Overall, the Bill has been well enough received but has critics who feel it goes too far and others who argue that it does not go far enough. Some of Ireland’s leading business lobbyists, such as IBEC, have warned of an unnecessarily burdensome bureaucracy while others think that the Bill contains too many exemptions and opportunities for lobbyists to wriggle out of providing meaningful information. For example, the reporting requirements do not cover interactions with officials below Assistant Secretary rank even though many officials at the next grade down have considerable influence over decision-making.

The Government has built in a full review of the law as soon as it has been operational for one year perhaps acknowledging the fact that no-one really knows how the new lobbying Bill will have an impact until it is actually up and running.

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