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Lobbying does not have a good reputation. It needs to come out of the shadows. This year, however, lobbying legislation is well on its way. Minister Brendan Howlin told a PAI Conference, on 10 December last, that – “…the Registration of Lobbying Bill … will provide clarity on “who is lobbying whom about what”

People’s response, when confronted by lobbying, is usually negative. Lobby groups are frequently criticised because they work in the shadows and spend large amounts of money to support campaigns and change opinions, and sometimes even limit the ability of governments to take decisions that benefit society as a whole.

But help is on the way. The current draft legislation flags the establishment of a web based register of lobbying activity and the delivery of appropriate transparency on lobbying in Ireland.When enacted, the legislation will have relevance for most sectors of the economy.

Why Lobby?

The job of lobbyists is to influence the decisions of government.Lobbying can be a positive force when special-interest groups do their work in the open and their voices are heard by elected politicians on real issues that face local communities. Without lobbying, the interests of many legitimate interests would be lost in the process of making laws and regulations.

What Action?

The current Lobbying Bill has not come out of the blue. In March 2011, the Programme for Government gave a commitment to – “… introduce a statutory register of lobbyists, and rules concerning the practice of lobbying”. The Public Service Reform Programme, November 2011, contained a commitment to prepare legislation to tackle lobbying. The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform followed-up with a review of the international approaches to the regulation of lobbyists; organised two rounds of consultation; held a conference, and published a Policy Paper, “Regulation of Lobbying –Policy Proposals”.

What is in the Bill?

The draft Bill is designed to establish a web based registration system of lobbying activity, to answer Minister Howlin’s question “who is lobbying whom about what?”

Three categories of lobbyists are listed in the Bill:

· Employers or their staff (where the employer has more than 10 employees),

· 3rd party lobbyists (those who are paid by a client to lobby on the clients behalf), or

· Anyone lobbying about the development of zoning of land.

Under the legislation, those who might be lobbied include Ministers and Ministers of State; TDs and Senators; MEPs; Councillors, Special Advisers, and Senior Public Servants.

The matters about which lobbyists might be lobbying are listed in the Bill:

·The initiation, development or modification of any public policy or programme,

·The preparation of legislation, or

·The award of any grant, loan, contract etc.

When a lobbyist communicates with one of the lobbied, about one of the listed matters, then the lobbyist must register on the lobbying register. The names, businesses, contact details of lobbyists, and who has been lobbied in relation to what matter will have to be registered. The Standards in Public Office Commission will be the Registrar.

What next?

Last November, the Oireachtas’s Select Sub-Committee on Public Expenditure and Reform completed its consideration of the Registration of Lobbying Bill 2014. It agreed a number of amendments. The next stages of the Bill should take place this year, but no definite timetable is yet available. Even if enacted before the Summer break, full implementation could take until the end of the year. Time is needed to allow for the development of the information technology and information systems to support the registration process. In addition, time is needed to establish an Advisory Group to provide information and guidance to assist in the smooth implementation of the legislation. Allowing for all of this work, it could be well into 2015 before the legislation is enacted.

After enactment will this legislation ever need to be revisited? The answer is probably yes, given that the consultation process has demonstrated the complexity of the issues arising in relation to the introduction of lobbying regulation. TheGeneral Scheme of the Regulation of Lobbying has recognised the need to revisit the legislation after the current Bill is enacted. Specifically, the draft Bill contains a provision that – “The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform shall… not later than 1 year after the commencement day and every 5 years thereafter, commence a review of the operation of this Act…”  Such a provision is very important in order to tackle any significant adverse unintended effects that might arise under the current lobbying legislation.

The overall objective should be to have lobbying legislation that operates as effectively and efficiently as possible, while taking lobbying out of the shadows.

Tom Ferris is a consultant economist specialising in Public Sector Governance, Better Regulation and Transport Economics. He was Senior Economist in the Department of Transport until February 2006. Since then, he has undertaken consultancy projects for the World Bank, the OECD, the High Level Group on Business Regulation, and a number of private sector companies. He is an occasional lecturer in public sector economics at NUIG, UCC, and Public Affairs Ireland and he writes regularly for PAI Publications. He holds a Masters degree in economics from University College Dublin and a Fellowship from the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport.