The first deadline to register as a lobbyist with the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO) is fast approaching. Under the Regulation of Lobbying Act 2015 (the "Act"), companies, organisations or individuals who make contact with public representatives or high level civil servants to communicate about a “relevant matter” must register with SIPO before 21 January 2016.
Under the Act the term 'lobbyist' has a wide meaning and many businesses who may not operate as professional lobbyists, may through the ordinary course of their work now find themselves subject to the legislation and required to register.
In the aftermath of the various tribunals of inquiries there were calls for a degree of regulation to be applied to the lobbying of public representatives and public servants. In the first half of 2015 the Regulation of Lobbying Act was enacted. The Act came into effect on 1 September 2015 and under the Act, SIPO will maintain a public register of lobbyists and lobbying activity.
In the Dáil the Minister stated that the aim of the legislation was to bring "greater transparency" to the flow of opinions, perspectives and proposals which come the way of decision makers when considering policy matters.
An interesting element of the Act is the decision not to limit the regulation of lobbying to those who pursue lobbying as a career (e.g. communications consultants, trades unions, advocacy groups etc.) but rather to extend the regulation to all those who partake in communication with authorities and public representatives. This means that many individuals who may not have considered themselves as 'lobbyists' will now find themselves subject to the regulation.
What is Lobbying
Lobbying is defined in the Act as communication between one party (the lobbyist) and a designated public official on what is referred to as a ‘relevant matter’.
A ‘relevant matter’ according to the Act1 is one which relates to:
- The initiation, development or modification of public policy, public programmes or legislation;
- The awarding of any grant, loan, contract, or of any licence or other authorisation involving public funds; or
- Any matter involving the development or zoning of land.
The concern for many businesses and individuals is the broad meaning which is applied to the term 'lobbyist'. As a result of the Act , a lobbyist means:
- A professional lobbyist being paid to communicate on behalf of a client;
- An employer with more than 10 employees where the communications are made on the employer’s behalf;
- A representative body with at least one employee communicating on behalf of its members and the communication is made by a paid employee or office holder of the body;
- An advocacy body with at least one employee that exists primarily to take up particular issues and a paid employee or office holder of the body is communicating on such issues; or
- Any person communicating about the development or zoning of land.
The Act provides that anyone conducting lobbying must register as a lobbyist and file a return three times a year on their lobbying activities.
The stringent nature of the regulations is highlighted by comments made by the Head of Lobbying Regulation with SIPO, Ms Sherry Perreault:
“It does not matter whether the interaction was formal or informal, whether it took place in a Minister’s office or down at the pub – if it is lobbying, it must be reported” 2
Given the broad application of the legislation, it is worth considering how the legislation operates in practice.
Returns to the Register of Lobbying will take place three times a year. The impending deadline covers the period from 1 September 2015 to 31 December 2015. The Register of Lobbying's website (www.lobbying.ie), recommends a three step test when considering whether or not one should register. Questions to ask are as follows:
- Am I one of the category of people (mentioned above) who can be defined as a lobbyist?
- Am I communicating about a ‘relevant matter’ (mentioned above)?
- Am I communicating with a designated official? 3
If one answers in the affirmative to all three of these self-test questions, then one should register as a lobbyist.
To register as a lobbyist, one should visit the dedicated lobbying regulation website and sign up online. The website will require registration of details such as the name of the individual being lobbied, the subject of the communication and the desired outcome (amongst others). These details will then be published on the website which will be publicly accessible.
The aim of the Act is to provide transparency, not to prevent communication. Therefore the Act does not serve to penalise any form of communication. There are penalties for breaches of regulations. In the case of a late return, the lobbyist is liable to a €200 fine. The Act provides for up to two (2) years in prison and a fine of up to €2,500 for more serious contraventions of the Act such as:
- Carrying on lobbying activities without being registered on www.lobbying.ie (the Lobbying Register website).
- Failing to make a return.
- Providing the SIPO with any information known to be inaccurate or misleading.
- Failing to co-operate with an investigating officer who is investigating contraventions of the Act.
- Obstructing an investigation.
It is also possible, in the case of companies charged with breaching the legislation, that company directors, secretaries or management could be held liable for the company's breach of the law.
Conclusion & Summary
SIPO is operating the Lobbying Register. The meanings of ‘lobbying’ and ‘lobbyist' are broad. Registration is an easily accessible online process. The public will have clear visibility of those who have tried to influence decision makers in the public sector and the register will be maintained online.
Businesses are recommended to consider their recent interactions with government or senior officials/representatives, to evaluate whether or not they should make returns to the register for the relevant period.
- The deadline for registration with the Lobbying Register in relation to the period 1 September 2015 – 31 December 2015 is 21 January 2016.
- Late registration is punishable with a €200 fine. However, more serious breaches can carry terms of imprisonment.
- Any person, company or organisation which has communicated with designated officials on relevant matters in the final quarter of 2015 should register by 21 January.