By Gráinne Ní Aodha, PA
Elected politicians face a range of fines for failure to fill out official declarations correctly, following a departmental report into ethics rules.
It comes after revelations that several senior government ministers had not disclosed assets or electoral supports properly on their official declarations.
Ethics watchdog Sipo has repeatedly called for more resources to strengthen its oversight of compliance with current ethics laws, which has been backed up in the findings of a report published on Tuesday.
The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform review into Ireland’s approach to ethics in public office found that the system of office holders’ declarations is limited if there are no “effective sanctions”.
“A risk arises that the dissuasive effect of the regime decreases over time if it appears that no effective consequences arise from clear breaches of the law,” the review said.
It found that a range of fixed penalty notices appealable to the courts may be the most “straightforward and effective” approach to dealing with “clear-cut breaches” so they can be addressed “promptly and proportionately”.
“In preparing proposals for legislative reform for Government approval, it is recommended that a range of appropriate sanctions is developed, with fixed fines for breaches of disclosure obligations combined with the benefits of the existing inquisitorial model,” the report concluded.
It also found that the extent of disclosure obligations vary according to the seniority and autonomy of the public official concerned.
The review said disclosures should happen once an office holder takes up their position and update it as required, with revised disclosures done electronically rather than on paper.
The review also recommended that ministers, their advisers and secretaries general with “significant” liabilities of more than €50,000 (separate from home mortgages) declare these in confidence to Sipo.
The departmental report also found that there should be “a unified and consolidated regime” for standards in public life covering both national and local government levels.
The review has been published after a number of senior Government politicians failed to declare interests correctly.
Paschal Donohoe has apologised for not declaring correctly the cost of hanging posters in the past two elections, paid for by a local businessman who resigned from two boards following political pressure over the omission.
The undeclared poster spend exceeded the limit on corporate election spending, which Sipo has been notified of, along with an amended expenses declaration by Mr Donohoe.
In August, Fianna Fáil TD Robert Troy resigned as a junior enterprise minister after failing to correctly declare properties on the Dáil register of members’ interests and also failing to register a rental property with the Residential Tenancies Board.
Fine Gael TD Damien English resigned in January after it was revealed that he failed to disclose the ownership of a Meath property on a planning application to his local authority.
Sinn Féin also had to amend its declarations after failing to declare expenses worth more than €2,000 relating to press conferences held during the 2016 general election campaign.
The review also reiterated previous recommendations that there should be a statutory ban on using insider information, on public officials looking for benefits to further their own interests, and on locally elected representatives dealing with land.
The report also questioned whether any additional measures should be taken to complement the 12-month cooling-off period in place for politicians after they leave office before they can lobby on behalf of the private sector.
It said “a question arises of what further protections are to be achieved through broader cooling-off periods”, and said judges and attorneys general should be considered under this too, as they tend to take up private work upon retiring.
“In the event that a regime of ‘cooling-off’ periods is put in place for elected office holders, extension of the arrangement to cover the role of Attorney General and the judiciary should also be examined,” it said.
Watchdog Sipo has oversight of ministers, special advisers, public servants (including civil servants) and senior executives and directors of State bodies.