Minster for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin
Minster for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin spoke to Seán O’Rourke on RTÉ Radio One this morning in light of the Regulation of Lobbying Act, which comes into force today.
Mr Howlin said the purpose of the legislation is to allow the public see who is lobbying politicians and officials in relation to public policy.
He said there’s no need for the Act to cover politicians lobbying politicians, saying Freedom of Information requests and Dáil questioning are suffice. See Catherine Murphy for details.
Seán O’Rourke: “New rules governing lobbying come in to force today. These require the disclosure of contacts between lobbyists and the politicians and officials whom they seek to influence. The rules were developed by Minster for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin who is with me in studio. Minister, thank you for coming in. This new legislation was promised and eventually delivered in the form of a bill now, it kicks off today. I think there’s a year of a ‘bedding in’ as it’s being put. What exactly do you hope it will achieve?”
Brendan Howlin: “Well Sean, I suppose it’s part of the suite of measures that we set out at the start of this government to make the whole business of public administration more transparent. The restoration of Freedom of Information, the ensuring that people who are lobbying Government and lobbying administration do it in a very open and transparent way – giving supports to whistleblowers. All these things have been put in place. Funnily enough, if you’d asked me four years ago when I set out, all the different important measures, I would have thought that regulation of lobbyists would have been probably the easiest one and in many ways it’s become the most difficult because it’s a balancing act. Because lobbying is a good thing. In an open democracy, citizens have the right to contact local representatives or national representatives to have their view indicated but I think there was certainly a backdrop of real unease about the peddling of influence. You know whether it was the euphemism of the Galway Tent where some people had extraordinary access and we need to have a regime…”
O’Rourke: “But sure the Galway Tent happened in broad daylight you could say. It’s surely what was going on where people couldn’t be seen fraternising or…”
Howlin: “Yes, I know. There was the Galway Tent and golf outings and all the rest but under this regime, that now will kick in from today, those conversations will have to be registered. You might know that Mr Y is talking to Minister X or special advisor Y or senior public administrator Q in a particular location but you don’t know what he’s saying, now you will. If they make a lobbying procedure under the act, if they’re talking about public policy and trying to influence public policy, they will be obliged to put that out in a public register, who they contacted about what and when.”
O’Rourke: “How far down the food chain does the responsibility lie in terms of say ministers and officials with whom contact has to be registered?”
Howlin: “Well, in the initial iteration of it, obviously, you know, this is going to be a work in progress. It’s not a fixed entity from the start because we’re going to have to broaden this over time. But right now it involves all politicians, either any TD, any Senator, any member of the European Parliament, any Minister of State, any Minister, any advisor to a Minister. It also encompasses secretaries genera of departments, assistant secretaries, generals and directors of departments. I put up my own contact list last night on my own website. And at local government level, chief executive officers and directors of service. It is my intention, as I informed the Dáil, to broaden that net so it will involve, for example, within the next 12 months, principal officers and so on. And then, you know, this is an interesting part of the debate we had. There are people who actually have influence that might not be actually senior. For example, should we include the private secretary to a minister who might actually have a lot of influence without having a particular...”
O’Rourke: “Well certainly where the appointments are concerned, he or she would.”
Howlin: “Well there you are. So. You know, we need to have a bedding in process. The Standards in Public Office are going to commission, are going to administer this whole system, we’ve looked at international best practice. There are only 7 countries as I understand now, within the European Union, that have legislated in this area and we are seeking to be best in class if you like.”
O’Rourke: “So if somebody approaches you, looking for a particular action to be taken that has to be registered. What about for instance, you yourself? As a local deputy for the county or constituency of Wexford, let’s just say you wanted a new operating theatre in Wexford General Hospital or some new facility, would that have to be registered by you or by the person you’re making your representations to. And it would be perfectly legitimate that you would do that.”
Howlin: “No, no I mean public representatives have to operate as public representatives and they’re entitled to the public administration and the public representative work, that’s what we’re elected to do, no more than local authority members would be entitled to do that. It is people who are…”
O’Rourke: “But surely that is central to the whole, you know, fear or at least suspicion that there’s a lot of pork barrel stuff going on with ministers using their own influence with colleagues. Surely that should have to be registered.”
Howlin: “No, I mean, it is understood that every local representative would obviously represent. I mean that’s the definition of local representative. What we’re talking about here is people who are trying to shape public policy externally, who are not elected people. But who are doing it for their own commercial gain. Obviously..”
O’Rourke: “But I mean charities are covered by this. There’s no commercial gain there, I’m just wondering why it shouldn’t apply to public representatives seeking to use their influence. Just tell us about it.”
Howlin: “But, but public representatives…”
O’Rourke: “I mean, for instance, there was a big controversy and your own former colleague who is the junior minister Roisin Shortall in the Department of Health. She took serious issue with the location of primary health centres, as set out by her former colleague James Reily. Now again, should a light not be shone in there about who was lobbying him for the location of these, in terms of constituencies.”
Howlin: “But there would be. That’s the very point.”
O’Rourke: “Not if, for instance, you or Phil Hogan were doing the lobbying.”
Howlin: “No, no, well I mean obviously, the notion that a public representative would receive a lobbying from somebody who wanted to have a health centre on his property, that would be registered. But the notion that the Minister for Health, or the Minister for the Environment would make a discernment, within his elected responsibility about where a housing scheme goes or where, that’s, he’s elected to do. And he’s accountable to the Dail and accountable to his own electorate for doing that. Sure that’s what public administration is about.”
O’Rourke: “Yes, but I’m just wondering, should we not know more about how these decisions are taken.”
Howlin: “But you have FOI, you have Dáil questioning, you have all these matters. I mean it almost goes to absurdity then when our public representatives debarred from….”
O’Rourke: “Nobody is suggesting, and I wouldn’t for a minute suggest that a public representative would be debarred from making representations. But I’m just wondering why they should be excluded from the terms of this legislation when they are the ones doing the lobbying as opposed to the ones being lobbied.”
Howlin: “But patently, you’re talking about ministers. Ministers are the lobbied, they’re not the lobbyists. The dialogue of cabinet is I suppose a lobbying, because I get lobbied every time I walk down the corridor by ministers looking for money. You don’t have to look beyond today’s papers to see that. Is that lobbying? Of course it is, of a kind. But that’s what they’re there to do. To be advocates for health or advocates for education or advocates for their own area of responsibility. That’s how public administration works.”
Listen back in full here
Lobbyists must record details of contacts with public officials (Irish Times)
‘A Form Of Localism’
Do You Want Your Old Lobby Washed Down?