Saturday, January 21, marks the deadline for returns to be made under the Regulation of Lobbying Act for the period September to December 2016. As highlighted previously this is an important returns deadline, as the enforcement provisions of the Act are now in place. Any organisation making late returns (including failing to submit a nil return) after midnight on the 21st will be subject to an automatic €200 fixed penalty payment, while the Standards Commission will have the power to investigate and commence proceedings in relation to non-disclosure of lobbying activity. Full details of those powers are available from the Standards Commission here.
As of today, more than 8,500 reports have been made over the past year by more than 1,500 organisations over the past year with almost a 1,000 returns having been made already for the September to December period. Many of the early issues with the legislation are being clarified through practice, and the PRII is continuing to engage with the Standards Commission and the Department of Public Expenditure to address the remaining issues. In that regard, it should be noted that the Standards Commission updated its guidelines compliance with the Act, which can be accessed here.
In terms of commons issues for members to consider in making their next returns, two points to flag. Firstly some organisations are still making multiple returns when only one is required (e.g. organisations making separate returns for different meetings on the same lobbying activity). So if you are lobbying about changing policy X, and had dozens of meetings with different politicians, you need only make one return. However if you are lobbying about different policy areas, X and Y, but cover them in the same meetings with officials of politicians, then you need to make separate returns.
Secondly, and this is an issue that has been flagged by the Standards Commission in advance of the January 21st deadline, is that of making meaningful returns. This relates to inaccurate or misleading details being provided in the ‘Specific Details’ and the ‘Intended Goals’ of a lobbying return. The issue here is that the information as to what an organisation was lobbying about is so general or vague that it provides no meaningful insight into the lobbying activity and therefore is not compliant with the Act’s requirements. An example of this would be to say that the lobbying activity was to ‘outline the organisation’s priorities’, ‘to advance the organisation’s interests’, etc but providing no detail of the policy, legislation or funding being lobbied about.
Under their new powers, the Standards Commission has the statutory power to request any misleading or inaccurate information in a return is updated within a 21-day period. If this is not done the Standards Commission can remove the information from the Register. In such circumstances the person shall be regarded as never having made the return. Offences and penalties provided for in Part 4 of the Act for late returns and non-returns will come into effect on 1 January 2017. This means that if a person's information is removed from the Register because it is incorrect or misleading and they are regarded as never having made the return they could subsequently be liable to prosecution for a late return under section 20(1) of the Act or for a non-return under section 20(2) of the Act.
The ‘Specific Details’ of the relevant matter is meant to provide a clear insight for a person reviewing the return as to what the organisation lobbying, was actually lobbying about. For example, it should specify the piece of legislation or policy that it the organisation is lobbying about, the zoning issue or what type of funding it is seeking. Examples of this from the Standards Commission are:
The intended results are then the lower tier changes or amendments.
The PRII is running regular training events on compliance with the Lobbying Act, which are available to members at a cost of €50 and non-members at a cost of €195. Full details available in our training section.