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Payments row should be catalyst for reform

Dublin, 10 October 2006 - Amendments to the Ethics Act are a necessity but so is the need for transparency over appointments to public bodies, writes John Devitt

The payments controversy highlights not just the need to reform the Ethics Acts. It also underscores the urgent need for greater transparency in the way appointments are made to public bodies.

As the controversy over gifts and loans to the Taoiseach moves on, more time needs be devoted by commentators and politicians on both sides of the Oireachtas to the question of how the kind of crisis we witnessed over the past weeks can be avoided in the future.

Thankfully the legal environment which allowed undeclared payments to be made to national politicians in 1994, with a few exceptions aside, no longer exists. The Ethics Acts mean that members of the Dáil and Seanad must now declare any personal payment of over €635 from anyone, other than a family member or close personal friend. Failure to do so can lead to prosecution - a former Leas-Cathaoirleachof the Seanad was prosecuted earlier this year for failing to disclose a €2,500 donation he received in 1997.

In addition the Tanaiste’s statement yesterday that the Ethics Acts will be amended to compel office holders and elected representatives to consult with the Standards Commission on the acceptance of “significant gifts or loans”, seems to be a further positive step in the direction of greater public confidence in politics and government.

Political campaign finance law has also been the subject of some welcome reform over the past decade. Political parties are now partly financed by the State and subject to restrictions on how much they can receive from a single donor. The amount spent in elections by candidates has been restricted too.

Overall Irish public ethics legislation is relatively robust – of course that’s not to say that there is no room for improvement. Concerns over business contributions to politicians and political parties have been well aired over the past couple of weeks and may have to be addressed at some stage in the near future.

What is remarkable however is the fact that the most pressing issue arising from the recent crisis has been largely overlooked by politicians on both sides of the political divide.

The Taoiseach’s admission that the appointment of five of his twelve supporters was made not because they had provided loans but “because they were friends”, casts further light on an area of public affairs that generally receives little attention or interest.

The apparent apathy to the way such bodies are governed is all the more alarming when one considers that, according to the think-tank TASC, there are some 5000 board members appointed to almost 500 public bodies. These bodies regulate everything from Irish business to our health and education systems.

While it can be assumed that the vast majority of existing directors of public bodies have been appointed based on talent and experience, there is no reliable way of knowing. In most cases, it is the sole responsibility of a minister to appoint directors to public bodies. There is no formal or open recruitment process, no regulatory agency with oversight of appointments, and there is no requirement to consult the Dáil on a minister’s decision.

Ireland’s policy makers might wish to examine examples set by the UK and Canada (which has just introduced legislation in this area), where Public Appointments Commissions oversee, monitor, and report on the selection of board members to public bodies. Ministers have the final say in who is appointed, but they are expected to choose from a list presented to them after the posts have been advertised and candidates interviewed.

Emphasis is placed on the skills, knowledge and experience of those recruited to public boardsin the UK. This is further strengthened through open competition for places and continued monitoring of board and director performance. The final decision on any appointment still rests with the Minister but there is a system in place to ensure that any abuse is reported by an independent body.

If Ireland were to go down this route there would be no need for the establishment of an entirely new agency - the Irish Public Appointments Service should already have the skills and resources at hand, and already deals with the appointment of staff to public bodies.

Whatever the outcome of the current controversy, an opaque appointments process leaves Ministers open to charges of abuse of position and will lead to lower public confidence in the governance of public bodies.  The perception that appointees are in place because of their personal connections rather than on merit will have been reinforced by recent events.

John Devitt

Acting Chief Executive - Transparency International Ireland

Irish Examiner – 11 October 2006