Wednesday, 26th June 2013
Part 1 of 2
”That Seanad Éireann:recognises that corporate and market forces can have a significant impact on people’s lives and public health outcomes and this provides strong justification for legislative and regulatory responses by government to reduce the influence of commercial and vested interests associated with tobacco, alcohol, gaming and other industries on public health and welfare policy;
recognises the need to provide decision makers with guidance to meet public expectations for transparency, accountability, integrity and efficacy when considering, developing, debating and implementing legislation or government regulations;
and calls on the Minister for Expenditure and Public Reform:
— to update the House on the General Scheme (Heads) of the Regulation of Lobbying Bill 2013;
— to debate with the Members of Seanad Éireann the need for transparent and accountable regulations governing Parliamentarians in relation to any engagement with representatives from tobacco, alcohol, gaming, or other commercial and vested interests.”.
The motion has been tabled by the Independent Group comprising myself and Senators O’Donnell, Mac Conghail, Mary Ann O’Brien and Zappone. We felt that it was important to table the motion as Private Members’ business because we wanted to focus on the lobbying of parliamentarians and to reflect on our role in that process.
When I saw the Government’s amendment, which I shall deal with in more detail later, I was surprised that the role of parliamentarians was not mentioned. The aim of the Independent Group’s motion is to shine a spotlight on parliamentarians, particularly the role of lobbying in the areas of tobacco, alcohol, gaming and other interests that have a public health and public welfare policy.
Everybody knows what role the tobacco industry plays in public health. The World Health Organization has prepared a report that identified a number of forms of tobacco industry interference which has been used to derail or weaken tobacco control. An example in the past few weeks has been the Minister for Health’s proposal on packaging. I would summarise the WHO’s list is as follows: manoeuvring to hijack the political and legislative process; exaggerating the economic importance of the industry; manipulating public opinion to gain the appearance of respectability; fabricating support through front groups; discrediting proven science; and intimidating governments with litigation or the threat of litigation. The WHO has clearly identified many forms of interference and I can see the hallmarks of it here in Ireland.
Let us examine alcohol-related harm. Too much focus has been placed on how alcohol affects industry. I have written two EU reports on the affect of alcohol-related harm. First, the issue must be adopted as a public health issue. All too often people have been sidetracked or derailed when they tried to deal with the matter. We have many reports on the issue and the figures are unacceptable. The latest report that I participated in was the one prepared by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Health and Children. In early 2012 the committee had all-party agreement on the major recommendations in its report but no action has been taken. I surmise that the alcohol industry has influenced the debate. We have witnessed lobbying during the debate on the marketing of alcohol and alcohol sponsorship of sporting events. The industry has far too much say in these issues. My problem with such influence is that it does not happen in the open but at meetings or expensive dinners.
Let us examine the tobacco industry. Many factors hinder efforts to cut the unnecessary toll of death and disease. The Irish Heart Foundation and the Irish Cancer Society have identified that the tobacco industry has great determination and has successfully influenced vital areas of policy. The tobacco industry is one of the best funded and sophisticated corporate lobbying interests in the world that works to build relationships with legislators and policy makers. The tobacco industry has a fundamental conflict of interest with public health policy. For decades the industry has worked across the world to market its killer and addictive products to children, deceived the public about the harmful effects of tobacco use and fought any policies designed to reduce tobacco use and save lives. Like any other corporation the primary obligation of tobacco, drinks and gaming companies is to deliver profits to shareholders and they are not concerned about public health issues. That means selling more of their addictive products.
I wish to refer to public health policy. Article 5.3 of the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control states that there is a “fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between the tobacco industry’s interests and public health policy interests.” Parliamentarians should declare when they are approached by these industries. We cannot leave it to the lobbying companies to list their consultations with politicians, perhaps using a PR agency. That is not good enough because they represent specific interests of the industry. I would prefer if companies declared their interest rather than list a collection of consultations with politicians. The latter is not accountability or transparency.
I wish to raise the concerns of organisations to whom we should listen, such as the Irish Heart Foundation and the Irish Cancer Society as they are at the coalface dealing with these issues. They have written to me stating they have been informed by a number of elected officials that tobacco industry representatives have been actively lobbying Members of the Oireachtas on the price of tobacco products in Ireland and the volume of illicit tobacco. They also point out that information gathered from parliamentary questions, media reports and freedom of information requests indicate that the tobacco industry representatives have considerable contact with Government officials.
From my reading of Article 5.3 of the World Health Organization framework that should not be happenings. We as parliamentarians should not accept this happening. We should not be meeting them. We need to ensure we have a clear regulatory system for lobbyists, but also for parliamentarians. What is needed is a code or pledge that parliamentarians sign stating that in the interest of public welfare, there are certain companies, sectors or vested interests that they will not meet or Members may be allowed to meet those organisations but must declare they have done so.
This brings me to the important work that Transparency International Ireland has done on a legislative footprint. When I came to the House I checked with the office of the Clerk of the Seanad about conflicts of interest I might have when I table amendments. I was advised quite clearly that I should make a declaration of interest. I have actively done that. I am involvedpro bono in an organisation for NGOs and I do not get an income from it. For clarity, I will always declare any interests I might have. When we deal with policy and legislation I do not hear people announce often they have met representative from any of these companies. However, the Irish Heart Foundation and the Irish Cancer Society report that Oireachtas Members are meeting representatives of the tobacco companies.
It is important to look at ensuring that if contacts are made with officials, Ministers or parliamentarians that the footprint is clearly noted when we are adopting legislation. Following scandals in the European Parliament involving parliamentarians ready to accept bribes in exchange for legislative favour, the Parliament recommended to the bureau to establish the requirement of a legislative footprint but it has not yet been implemented. This goes to the crux of the difficulty we have and to the crux of the motion we tabled and the amendment to it. We find it very comfortable to talk about the lobbyists and how we will regulate and control them. That is important and I do not underestimate that challenge but there is also a responsibility on ourselves as parliamentarians to state what is acceptable or not, which is the reason I was very disappointed in the amendment tabled by Government. We worded our motion in very open language. It states, “to debate with the Members of Seanad Éireann the need for transparent and accountable regulations governing Parliamentarians in relation to any engagement with representatives from tobacco, alcohol, gaming, or other commercial and vested interests.” What was the problem with that paragraph? I wanted to make provision for a pledge or a contract. We left it open to have a debate in the House, yet those on the Government side could not incorporate that into their amendment. In my view that raises serious questions.
My colleague, Senator Marie-Louise O’Donnell, will second the motion.
Part 2 of 2:
I thank colleagues for their participation in the debate. I particularly thank my Government colleagues for not seconding their amendment, which I assume has been withdrawn and that we will not have to be pushed to a vote on the issue.
I was disappointed at the selective citing of the OECD principles in the amendment. Several of the principles were cited but not principle No. 6. The comment on it calls for transparency and integrity in lobbying, and mentions the Government should also consider facilitating public scrutiny by indicating who has sought to influence legislative or policy-making processes, for example by disclosing a legislative footprint which indicates the lobbyists consulted in the development of legislative interests. This is the heart of what we are trying to bring forward in our motion.
We called for a debate and not for anybody’s hands to be tied. We wanted a debate on the role of parliamentarians, which is exactly what we have had today in the Seanad. This is a first step in the process. Many interesting points have been raised with regard to the role of lobbyists, and this is important, but we also need to focus on ourselves and our role as parliamentarians. Several weeks ago the Government launched the healthy Ireland initiative. What we propose supports this Government policy. We would like to see a legislative commitment to publish details of meetings on public health and welfare issues. The regulatory impact and legislative footprint should be examined. Why not have a code of conduct for all branches of Government? Why not give clear guidance to our parliamentarians? Senator Byrne disclosed his experience. Why are we not given clear guidance so we do not have to find out by accident? Senator Marie Louise O’Donnell, who seconded the motion, clearly showed the reality of what is happening in the gaming industry. I would like to see assurances that the Cabinet handbook will be updated to include Article 5.3 of the World Health Organization framework convention on tobacco control.
Senator Whelan asked the pertinent question as to why alcohol sponsorship was not dealt with as a public health issue. This is something we must ask ourselves as parliamentarians. As I have stated previously, I wrote two reports on alcohol-related harm for the European Economic and Social Committee. Most Senators have probably not heard of the committee, but the European spirits organisation lobbied intensively every one of the 344 members of the committee on my report. It tried to discredit me, the NGO for which I was working and the report itself. Thankfully it did not win and my colleagues in the committee supported me in the majority. The motion we have tabled was for the purpose of having this debate, and I thank the House for its support. It is a first step in starting the process and the public has an expectation of us that as parliamentarians we must have higher standards.