The Register of Lobbying – an Explainer
The Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015 was signed into law on Wednesday 11th March 2015 by President Michael D. Higgins, and commenced yesterday, 1st September. In this week’s blog, our Account Advisor, Tony Heffernan, explains the act and its implications.
The new Lobbying Act 2015 which came into operation on September 1st should provide the public for the first time with significant information on the extent and nature of lobbying that takes place in this country.
It must be said that lobbying of politicians and other decision makers to secure changes in legislation or to expedite decision-making is a perfectly legitimate activity and is a normal part of the democratic process. All sorts of bodies lobby to influence government decisions. Representative organisations like trade unions or the IFA do it; community and voluntary organisations do it. The newspapers have in the past successfully lobbied for a reduction in VAT rates; RTE regularly lobbies for an increase in the licence fee. It is also quite legitimate for business and commercial organisations to lobby where, for instance, they believe that the tax regime discourages expansion or job creation. Some bodies do the lobbying themselves; others employ specialist companies to assist them with lobbying.
Lobbying in this country has had a bad press because it has been associated with the corrupt and illegal practices by a small number of lobbyists (largely related to land rezoning) highlighted in the various reports of the Flood/Mahon Tribunal. In this case lobbying was linked to improper ‘donations’ to political figures who were in a position to influence key decisions.
There has also been the problem that most of this lobbying has been done behind closed doors with the public being unaware of who is doing the lobbying, who is being lobbied, and what the lobbying is designed to achieve.
All of this led to calls for the regulation of lobbying and following the 2011 General Election, the Fine Gael/Labour Programme for Government made the following commitment to “introduce a statutory register of lobbyists, and rules concerning the practice of lobbying.” With the enactment of the new Lobbying Act, Ireland becomes the ninth EU state to introduce statutory regulation of lobbying.
Under the Act, lobbying is defined as any communication (verbal or written) to a designated public official related to:
- The initiation, development or modification of any public policy or of any public programme
- The preparation or amendment of any law
- The award of any grant, loan, contract, or of any licence or other authorisation involving public funds.
Designated public offices are currently defined as:
- Ministers of the Government and Ministers of State
- Other members of Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann
- Members of the European Parliament for the three constituencies in Ireland
- Members of local authorities
- Special advisers
- Secretaries-General and Assistant Secretaries-General of Government departments, Chief Executive Officers and Directors of Services in local authorities.
Other public servants may be prescribed by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform over time, so it is likely that in time the Act will apply to lower ranking civil servants.
There are a number of exemptions. Representations made by statutory agencies or boards are largely exempt as are communications by commercial state bodies to the ‘parent’ department.
All lobbying that falls within the terms of the Act must be disclosed to the Standards in Public Offices Commission (SIPO). The first reports, covering the period from September 1st to December 31st, must be submitted to SIPO by January 21st next and these will then be published online. It is likely that when the initial reports are published, they will produce a flurry of media interest, but as the publication of the quarterly reports become a matter of routine, the level of media interest is likely to diminish.
There has been a broad welcome for the new legislation from the representative body for the sector, the Public Relations Institute of Ireland, and member companies have been preparing for the new regime and the significant administrative and reporting burdens that the legislation will place on them.
Further information on the Lobbying Act and how the new system will operate is available at https://www.lobbying.ie/.