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Winning friends and influence

31 Jan 2017

Dara Gantly explores the latest returns to the lobbying register to see behind closed doors

The global media circus may have returned from Washington, but we haven’t quite finished with the US yet at IMT. You’ll read how the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria is more optimistic than many over what the future holds under President Donald Trump (read here). But it is at the famous Willard Hotel in Washington DC where this editorial starts.

Legend, folklore, or ‘alternative fact’ would have it that after a long day in the Oval Office, President Ulysses S Grant would retire to the Willard for a brandy and cigar, but was routinely accosted by those he termed ‘damn lobbyists’ pestering him in the hotel’s lobby for favours.

It’s a lovely origin story, but probably not true. Yet the intent then is the same as it is today: to influence the outcome of members’ votes, and to shape public policy.

Thankfully we don’t have any swamp to drain around Leinster House, but the influence industry is alive and kicking here, as shown by the register of lobbying (www.lobbying.ie) maintained by the Standards in Public Office Commission.

As of last week, there were 11,035 returns in total from September 2015 when the register first opened to January 2017. And already, for the submitting period January 1, 2017, to April 30, 2017, there were 46 returns, although the majority of these indicated no lobbying activities.

However, Tom Phillips and Associates did recently register their email and phone calls with a designated public official (DPO) in Dublin City Council last year, on behalf of the RCSI, to obtain the Council’s agreement to reduce section 48 development contributions applicable to the permission for its York Street development. The College was also involved in meetings with Senator Keith Swanick over his Bill to require the NTMA to stop investing in tobacco companies.

For the most recent period, September 1 to December 31 2016, there were 3,358 returns, with 438 of these in the policy area of Health. It’s an eclectic collection of public records.

In the pharma industry, former minister of state Liz O’Donnell — MSD’s new Director of Policy, Government Affairs and Communications — was requesting the Taoiseach’s Office to see if Enda Kenny had time for a meeting with senior MSD officials while in Davos at the World Economic Forum.

While AbbVie and Pfizer were both lobbying TDs to discuss an amendment to the Health (Pricing and Supply of Medical Goods) Act, which would allow biologic medicines to be deemed interchangeable. And it is no surprise to learn that Rebecca Hunt, VP Corporate Affairs at Vertex, lobbied a long list of TDs and Senators over the HSE’s reimbursement policy, and specifically its expensive CF drug Orkambi.

You may be glad to hear that your union fees are also being used for lobbying, with a simple count giving the IMO, the NAGP and the IHCA nine, eight and five entries, respectively, last quarter. Many of these were routine contacts, however, around such things as the IMO’s presentations before Oireachtas Committees and budget submissions. But IMO House did want to meet with An Taoiseach to discuss comments he made in the Dáil relating to an unfilled consultant post in the Mater (presumably the cardiologist post vacant since 2007!), and IMO GP Chairman Dr Padraig McGarry met with FF Deputy James Lawless to convey the difficulties experienced by rural GPs.

The NAGP’s entries include five letters or emails to Minister Simon Harris, seeking mainly to discuss the proposed new GMS contract, but also the level of debt of graduates of the Graduate Entry Medical Scheme and the delay in implementing the new vaccination schedule. But the Association also held discussions with Deputy Dara Calleary and Senator Swanick over the Competition Amendment Bill, 2016 — designed to delimit the application of the Competition Act 2002 to trade unions and members.

The IHCA’s activity seemed more diverse, and included a submission to the Public Service Pay Commission to highlight the current consultant recruitment crisis, a letter and meeting with Minister of State Helen McEntee over the provision of mental health services in Community Health Organisations, a further meeting with Minister Harris on a variety of pressing issues and a meeting with various TDs on the Civil Liability (Amendment) Bill 2016 over open disclosure.

Your professional bodies are also required to record their lobbying activity, and the last quarter of 2016 saw the ICGP — and in particular Dr Claire Collins, Dr Brian Osborne and Dr Brendan O’Shea — meet with Minister McEntee on resources for mental health in primary care.

But there is much within the register that seems superfluous. For example, the ICGP felt the need to name Minister Harris as the public official it lobbied when the College was invited by the Claire Byrne show on RTÉ to speak about the challenges facing the health service. While the Minister and Dr Ciara Kelly were panel speakers on the show, three ICGP spokespersons were in the audience and spoke briefly: Dr Laura Noonan, Dr Mark Murphy and Dr John O’Brien.

Is this lobbying? I saw the programme, and it was just regular TV. I’ve read up on the legislation and see that a communication aimed at a general audience or the public would not be considered lobbying. But then it is apparently the content, not the method of communication, that determines whether something should be recorded as a lobbying activity.

“Generally a communication, such as a speech, that is aimed at a general audience and does not target designated public officials would not be considered lobbying. However, if a speech is made specifically to one or more DPOs, or they are directly addressed in the course of the speech, it may be lobbying depending on whether the subject of the speech concerns a relevant matter and whether the person making the speech falls within the scope of the Act,” the Standards Commission explains.

I guess the ICGP is being careful, but then why have the IMO or NAGP chosen not to do likewise? Even a tweet, if it is sent to an individual recipient, or a DPO is tagged, may be lobbying depending on the subject matter. You have all been warned.

The records show that the RCPI has met with DoH Chief Medical Officer Dr Tony Holohan a number of times, to discuss issues like postgraduate medical training, integrated care, and the National Clinical Care Programmes. The Public Health (Alcohol) Bill was also on its agenda.

What was shocking was the extent of lobbying over Section 20 of the Alcohol Bill and its rules separating alcohol from other products in shops. Nearly every Centra in the country might have been involved (this is my one hyperbolic moment — I lost count). It’s hard to tell the real numbers when, for example, Cecil Whiteside is down as lobbying TDs Marc MacSharry, Tony McLoughlin and Eamon Scanlon over, and I quote, a “piece of legislation”, with the intention that “the piece of legislation would be reviewed and changed”.

It appears — not from the register — that Mr Whiteside is one of Sligo’s best-known retailers, operating the local Centra in Collooney and the SuperValu in Ballisodare. So could this legislation have been the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill? I find it a concern that the register would accept such vague explanations. It’s not very transparent.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again (‘Calling time on excessive lobbying’ Dec 16, 2016): if the DoH can curtail ministers and advisers from engaging directly with the pharmaceutical industry over the price of medicines, could we not stop lobbying over the Alcohol Bill and get it passed?

Perhaps you could all directly tweet this editorial to @SimonHarrisTD. But don’t forget to submit your lobbying return.

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