Former Government officials' details missing from hundreds of lobbying returns
Noteworthy and The Journal find almost 400 occasions where former Government officials incorrectly appeared as ‘ordinary’ lobbyists.
DOZENS OF FORMER Government officials who subsequently lobbied TDs and senior figures have incorrectly appeared as ‘ordinary’ lobbyists on Ireland’s register of lobbying.
An analysis by Noteworthy found almost 400 returns on the Lobbying Register in which ex-ministers, ministerial advisers and secretaries general were not listed as what are known as ‘former Designated Public Officials’ (DPOs) as required by law.
Under the Regulation of Lobbying Act (2015), when a former DPO is engaged in lobbying and appears on the Lobbying Register, they must state that they used to work in public office and state the most recent role they held, including – in the case of, ministers, special advisers and senior civil servants – which department they worked for.
The feature enables those browsing the register to see when a former DPO is lobbying their former minister, department or – in the case of ex-TDs – party colleagues.
However, an examination by Noteworthy of thousands of entries on the Lobbying Register discovered 379 returns in which the roles of 37 former DPOs were not listed.
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The error was discovered after we cross-referenced the names of dozens of special advisers and other former DPOs with the Lobbying Register and in spreadsheets which can be downloaded from the Standards in Public Office (Sipo)-maintained website.
We examined the seven-year period that the Lobbying Register has been in force, from September 2015 to September 2022.
For the purposes of this investigation, Noteworthy only focused on certain high level DPOs, as defined under Section 22 of the Regulation of Lobbying Act.
These are former government ministers, ministerial special advisers, and high-level civil servants (like secretaries general and assistant secretaries general). Our investigation did not cover TDs, senators, councillors and lower level civil servants.
Commenting on the issue, John Devitt, Chief Executive of Transparency International Ireland (TII), which advocates for increased transparency and accountability in public life, said that a failure to declare former DPO status meant that a return was incomplete, and it was important for Sipo to pursue this.
“Well the returns are not complete,” he told Noteworthy. “There’s something that the Commission can do in addressing it. If they see an incomplete return, then they can contact the registered lobbyist and ask them to update it.”
It’s understood that in some cases, the issue arose due to an issue on Sipo’s system for registering lobbying activity, whereby the profile and employment histories of former DPOs – which were listed in some entries – did not automatically carry into later filings.
When questioned about the incomplete returns, and whether any were a result of issues with the Lobbying Register itself, a spokesperson for Sipo said:
“The transparency of the register not only gives access to information on these activities but also allows the public, media, and civil society to draw attention to any inaccuracies, misleading returns, or other irregularities.
“As the primary aim is to make lobbying information available, Sipo encourages compliance in the first instance.
This includes bringing people into compliance where there may be inaccuracies in their returns. This is in line with Section 13 of the Act, which provides that where Sipo considers that there is “inaccurate or misleading” information in lobbying returns, it may give notice to the person concerned to correct that information.
Sipo said that depending on the circumstances, it had the discretion to investigate cases where a person has provided “information known to be inaccurate or misleading”, which is an offence under the Act and could be subject to a fine.
There is no suggestion that any of the inaccurate returns we analysed were submitted by the lobbyist knowing the return to be inaccurate or misleading.
The incomplete entries included lobbying returns filed on behalf of multinationals such as Google, Huawei, Diageo, GSK and Merck, as well as Coillte, the state-owned company which manages Ireland’s forests, and the Government-run Housing Agency.
Responses received from those who lobbied on behalf of these companies told Noteworthy that, in each case, the issue was down to an error and that they had contacted Sipo to seek an update of the relevant returns.
Other entries where former DPOs were not listed included filings on behalf of numerous property developers, the Construction Industry Federation, the Honorable Society of King’s Inns, the Irish Pharmaceutical Healthcare Association and a number of charities.
Some entries did state that an ex-DPO carried out lobbying activities related to a return, but did not identify the lobbyist as a former DPO or give details of their previous role. This means the box was ticked saying “Yes” on whether a former DPO was involved, but no further details were provided.
Following the discovery, Noteworthy sought to contact all of the relevant lobbyists or companies to notify them of the problem and to clarify why former DPOs had not been identified on their returns.
In the majority of cases, including for all of the companies and representative bodies mentioned above, respondents acknowledged that the issue was due to human error or an administrative problem and confirmed that they would contact Sipo to amend the relevant returns.
The most common reasons was the failure to “tick a box” in error on some returns. In some cases, those who held the public position before 2015 (when the regulations came into effect) were not aware that they had to declare their former DPO status on the register.
As a result of our inquiries, lobbyists and groups said they had contacted Sipo to amend more than 250 returns which did not originally identify 28 former DPOs as such on the register.
No response was received by two individuals and their companies, despite multiple attempts to contact them.
These include former Labour minister Ruairí Quinn, who lobbied on behalf of educational company Rise Global Holdings, a client of his company, in 2016. Quinn did not state that he was a former DPO in his return. While there is no reason to suspect that the failure was anything other than a clerical error – as Ruairí Quinn was a high profile politician – the return remains inaccurate.
Jean Andrews, a former special adviser to then-Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications Denis Naughton, did not respond to a request for clarity about why she was not listed as a former DPO in three entries for transport company Superpedestrian. Again, while there is no reason to suspect that the failure was other than a clerical error, the return remains inaccurate.
Issues with the register
The Lobbying Register, maintained by the Standards in Public Office commission (Sipo), details the extent to which lobbyists seek to influence public policy through contacts with ministers, TDs, councillors and other Government employees.
Under the Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015, which legislated for the database to be set up, anyone who contacts a DPO about lobbying has to register as an official lobbyist.
Returns are filed over the course of three periods each year, and are supposed to contain full details about which companies or individuals lobbied DPOs during the relevant period, how they did so (ie via phone call, email or meeting), what they lobbied about and what the intended outcome of their lobbying was.
Any person or organisation who is registered as a lobbyist and fails to make a return in time is breaking the law, and can be served a fixed penalty notice (FPN) of €200.
According to the Regulation of Lobbying annual report, a total of 399 FPNs were issued in 2021. Thousands of returns are filed by lobbyists in each lobbying period, and information about their activities is supposed to be freely accessible to anyone who can access the Lobbying Register online.
During the course of our research, Noteworthy discovered multiple issues with how the register functions beyond the instances where hundreds of former DPOs who lobbied were not labelled as such.
It emerged that even when the names of former DPOs appear on the register, only their most recent role or department at the time of lobbying is listed, so that it is unclear when those individuals have held multiple roles or worked in multiple departments.
This means it is impossible to know when an individual is lobbying their own department in certain returns, without externally checking their employment history via other sources.
Commenting on this, John Devitt of TII said there was no reason why this information could not be included on the register:
Again, there’s no reason why that data couldn’t be made available. And it can be made available by the standards committee, by the regulator.
Another feature of the register allows users to download spreadsheets of any relevant returns they choose (or all returns) from a given lobbying period. Looking at these spreadsheets, we found a number of additional lobbying returns within them that did not appear when looked for using the search function on the register.
The search function also allows users to look for named individuals under a drop-down menu, by seeing all of the returns in which they are the “person primarily responsible” for lobbying.
However, these searches omit returns in which former DPOs are not the primary person involved in lobbying, but are listed as a secondary person, meaning that former DPOs may appear to be less involved in lobbying than they are.
Register ‘due an upgrade’
While TII has repeatedly called for Sipo to be given more powers and resources, Devitt also said there were practical steps the regulator could take itself to improve the functionality of the lobbying register.
“There are some measures or steps that the lobbying regulator could take or adopt… to make that information that is already gathered, to make it more accessible to the public, in a form that makes it easier to understand,” he said.
Devitt said the technology of the register was now seven years old and likely due an upgrade.
Sinn Féin’s spokesperson for public expenditure and reform Mairéad Farrell said that issues with the register had been raised at committee level, and agreed that the register should be functional for citizens to inform themselves about lobbying activity.
“There’s issues in terms of actually being able to access the data, for whatever reason, even if it’s just that the structure within which the data is, that it’s just not fit for purpose, or whatever it may be,” she said.
It should be more easily accessible. Obviously there needs to be access, and that should work quite easily both for the general public, but also obviously for the media who do keep an eye on these kinds of things.
In response to detailed queries from Noteworthy in relation to the functionality of the register, a spokesperson for Sipo said that the purpose of the Regulation of Lobbying Act was to make lobbying more transparent.
Sipo said that the register had been tested extensively in 2015 before it went live, to ensure it was user-friendly and easy to navigate.
The spokesperson said it contains extensive guidance explaining how to register and file returns, and that it provides online information sessions for people.
“Sipo keeps the functioning of the website and register under review on an ongoing basis,” they said.
A number of performance issues were identified and upgrades made to the system during 2021, and Sipo is currently working with the IT provider on further refinements.
The regulator said that an overhaul of the website is scheduled as part of the Office’s Strategic Plan 2022-2025.
A spokesperson for Department of Public Expenditure and Reform said that the responsibility for the administration of the Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015 with Sipo, and that it was not in a position to comment on whether or not a lobbyist is meeting their obligations.
FULL SERIES IS OUT NOW
In part two, the extent of lobbying by former senior public officials in Ireland is revealed for the first time. Our next investigation - THE CONSTRUCTION NETWORK - examines lobbying by the construction industry.
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By Stephen McDermott of The Journal and Cormac Fitzgerald for Noteworthy
This Noteworthy investigation was done in collaboration with The Journal. It was funded by you, our readers, with support from The Journal as well as the Noteworthy investigative fund to cover additional costs.
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