Ethics watchdog criticises party funding

The Standards in Public Office Commission is investigating offences under ethics legislation and recommends a new approach to funding of political parties.

The 2006 Annual Report of the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO) has delivered another indictment of the political culture in Ireland that is allowed to regulate itself while ignoring the laws and recommendations of the government-formed ethics watchdog.

In its 2003 report the commission stated that there was “a case for imposing some accountability in the context of the spending limits” in the period leading up to the legally defined election campaign period (three weeks before polling day). In the most recent report the Chairman of the SIPO, Mr Justice Matthew P. Smith, states that this view has been reinforced by the 2007 election and the clear public perception that the “legislation is far from effective in its stated aim of regulating expenditure at elections by political parties and candidates”. With this in mind the chairman recommends a “new approach to the general funding of political parties” and “increased transparency in such funding and for greater scrutiny of political party expenditure.”

Along with its annual report, the SIPO this week issued figures showing the donation amounts for 2006 disclosed by each of the 13 registered political parties. Fianna Fail, Fine Gael and the Progressive Democrats disclosed no donations for 2006. Those parties that did disclose funding were the Green Party, with donations of €30,000 from its TDs, the Socialist Party with €11,819.55 and the Labour Party with €11,100. Sinn Fein had the largest amount of donations with €87,233.80. Last year was the first time FF had produced a nil return for donations, but FG, Labour and the PDs have all done so in recent years. SIPO points out that “it is not known how the political parties funded their 2007 general election campaigns, and that parties are soliciting donations below the disclosure threshold.” All parties are required to disclose donations exceeding an aggregate value of €5,078.95. Any donation of or less than this value does not require disclosure.

Political party branches in third level institutions have been informed that they are classified as “accounting units” (a branch or other subsidiary of a political party). As such, they are required to disclose donations. The SIPO is currently investigating the failure of the Fianna Fail branches in NUI Galway and University College Cork to disclose certain donations. The UCC branch of FF accepted a donation in excess of the maximum acceptance limit (€6,348.69), without disclosure. SIPO contacted UCC itself in relation to the donation. The university stated that it had not made a contribution in excess of the limit. The university was asked to re-check its records, as the information provided did not correspond to the information provided by FF. A reply had not yet been received by the time the commission published its report. NUI Galway furnished no reply to the commission, which is pursuing the matter.

Accounting units are required under legislation to furnish SIPO with accounting details by a certain date each year. In 2006, 90 of these accounting units failed to furnish their statutory documentation on time. In the current report the commission states that it did not refer any of these offences to the Gardai/DPP, but will consider referring any future offences to the prosecuting authorities.

In concluding its report the SIPO makes a number of recommendations to the ethics and electoral legislation.

These include:
- Provision for offences and penalties for failure to comply generally with the provisions of Parts IV, V and VI of the Electoral Act - these parts relate to disclosure of donations, expenditure by candidates and political parties at Dáil and European Parliament elections, and donations and election expenses at presidential elections, respectively.

- Provision for an offence and penalty for failing to comply with a request from the Standards Commission (under section 4(4) of the act) to provide information or documentation.

- Consideration should be given to imposing some accountability, in the context of the spending limits, in respect of a specified period prior to commencement of the legally defined election period (ie that the election period might be extended to include a period prior to the dissolution of the Dáil or moving of the writ at an election).

- Provide that a candidate (or other person) shall be guilty of an offence if, at any time before, during or after the election he/she fails to provide the necessary information to an election agent or national agent for the purposes of facilitating the completion of the agent's Election Expenses Statement. Provide a penalty for this offence.

- Giving the SIPO the power to appoint an Inquiry Officer to conduct a preliminary inquiry where it is considering an investigation, even in the absence of a complaint.

- Amendments to time limits within which statutory declarations, tax clearance certificates and applications are to be made or issued and furnished to the commission.

- Revision of the timescale for the taking of proceedings concerning possible offences regarding the making of false statutory declarations.

- Provision for the date of first assembly of the relevant House of the Oireachtas be used as the election date for the purposes of determining the time limits by which an elected member must make his or her statutory declaration and furnish to the Standards Commission a tax clearance certificate or an application statement.