Progressive Democrats – bastion of ethics?

Tom Parlon, one of the former PD TDs and bookie’s favourite to take the leadership once the paperwork about the PD consitiution requiring the leader to be a sitting TD was sorted out, has resigned. He has been head-hunted by the Construction Industry Federation. As ever, there is much comment on this over at
The fact that in the 29th Dail (the one was dissolved before the election that he failed to get re-elected in) Mr Parlon was the Junior Minister with special responsibility for the Office of Public Works does not, it seems, raise any potential for conflict of interest in Mr Parlon’s view. The OPW is responsible for state construction contracts and has an annual budget of €630million. Mr Parlon has stated that

“The whole tendering process in the OPW was completely separate from the minister. Individual companies tender and the OPW is obliged to accept the lowest tender. I never had any involvement in this.”

However it is standard practice in the Civil Service for a ‘cooling off period’ of 12 months to be applied before a civil servant who may have had a ‘designated’ position (as defined in the Ethics Acts) goes to work for a private sector firm that might have dealings with their former department. In any case the Civil Servant must notify the Standards in Public Office Authority. In the private sector ‘gardening leave’ is often applied to staff who take jobs with competitors. This is simply good ethical practice and avoids the implication that there may be untoward influence applied in the conduct of business. This is precisely the point raised by Transparency International.

The question is – does the Junior Minister fall within a category of people who might have a ‘designated position’ under the terms of section 20.2 of the Civil Service Code of Standards and Behaviour? Given that any other such person would draw their authority from the responsible Minister by way of delegation I would argue that this might be the case. (The legal eagles over at McGarr Solicitors or Tuppenceworth can feel free to correct any errors in my interpretation of the legalities/ethics here.)

Mr Parlon’s defence that he was seperate to the tendering process holds less weight when one considers that any Civil Servant in the OPW who had a ‘designated’ position (defined in the Ethics Acts) would need to cool their heels for 12 months and that any Civil Servant in the OPW who was taking up employment in the private sector in a firm that they might have had official dealings or which might gain an unfair advantage over competitors as a result of that employment would need to notify the Outside Appointments Board. The direct involvement of the Civil Servant in a particular process is not a requirement for the notification to the Outside Appointments Board.

This scenario is not addressed in the advisory booklet on the Ethics Acts for ‘Office Holders’ (which Mr Parlon, as a Minister for State/Junior Minister, was) so he might be excused for overlooking the ethical gap here. Perhaps the €250,000 per annum salary on top of his TD and Junior Minister pension has distracted him from the fundamental issues.

However the question is a simple one – do we hold the Servants of the State (Civil Servants) to a higher ethical code than their leaders? If a senior Civil Servant from the OPW resigned (or was dismissed as Mr Parlon was in effect) and promptly took up a senior position with a lobby group for the Irish Construction Industry Federation would that go unchallenged or be so easily dismissed as a non-issue?

Mr Parlon says that the PDs will survive as they have some ‘young blood’ coming through local authority councils. However with no likely candidate emerging to lead a party that has had the stuffing knocked out of it in the Election one must wonder who will lead the ‘young bloods’ and remould the party into a vibrant and relevant voice. The speed with which Mr Parlon has grabbed this particular lifevest should surely give these ‘young bloods’ pause for thought.

Perhaps Tom Parlon is simply working on fulfilling his destiny to lead people who will ‘build a better Ireland’ but he has realised it is the brickies, plumbers and plasters rather than the PDs who have a better chance of achieving this?

Ethics be damned. He’s on a mission from god.

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