Potential gifts should be anticipated whne preparing for ministerial visits
Parliamentary Ombudsman Petri Jääskeläinen proposes that guidelines be prepared to direct the anticipation of gifts presented to ministers.
- Anticipation should be a regular part of preparing for ministerial visits, says Jääskeläinen. The hosts of the visit could then be informed of any restrictions associated with gifts.
The Ombudsman paid attention to this issue when investigating a complaint that concerned the actions of Ms Anna-Maja Henriksson, Minister of Justice, and Mr Carl Haglund, Minister of Defence.
A complaint about reindeer and other gifts presented to the Ministers
As they visited Lapland in autumn 2014, Minister Haglund and Minister Henriksson had been offered reindeer to adopt. Minister Henriksson had also been given a woollen shawl and a piece of jewellery.
The complainant suspected that the gifts represented an attempt to influence the processing of legislative issues related to the Sámi.
- Handing over the adoptive ownership of the reindeer was a symbolic gesture that, rather than transferring the title to the animals, gave the Ministers the right to name the reindeer and keep track of their lives, notes Jääskeläinen.
The total value of the piece of jewellery and the shawl presented to Minister Henriksson was about EUR 500. Even though relatively valuable, in the Ombudsman's opinion they were typical gift items.
The Ombudsman finds that accepting these gifts did not undermine confidence in the balanced and appropriate action of the ministers.
Unexpected hospitality can be a problem
When the complaint was investigated, it turned out that in connection with visits and meetings, ministers may find themselves in situations where their hosts wish to present them with gifts or other benefits.
The precise nature of the gift given to Minister Henriksson was only discovered at the destination, and the handing over of the adopted reindeer came as a surprise to Minister Haglund. He felt that declining it would have offended his hosts deeply.
- Even in unexpected situations, the appropriateness of accepting a gift or other benefits should be weighed on the same premises as at other times, however faster and possibly with less information than if it could have been done in advance, notes Jääskeläinen.
In unexpected situations it may not be possible to ascertain whether the party offering hospitality has connections with the minister's official duties and whether the gift may be accepted. A minister may also be exposed to social pressures if refusing a gift could give offence.
Anticipation of gifts should be part of preparing for visits
The Ombudsman proposes that the Prime Minister's Office consider whether instructions on anticipating possible gifts presented to ministers could, for example, be incorporated in the Minister's Handbook.
Anticipation should be part of preparing for ministerial visits. The situation could then be assessed, and the hosts could be informed of any restrictions related to gifts.
Anticipation and informing the hosts in advance could help to avoid a situation where a minister ends up accepting an inappropriate gift, for example because of lack of information.
On the other hand, situations where a minister would be forced to refuse a gift offered to him or her could also be eliminated.
- In some cases, it may be advisable for a minister to completely refrain from accepting gifts, Jääskeläinen considers. This may include cases where the minister has to make a decision on interests that concern the destination of the visit.
The full text of Parliamentary Ombudsman Petri Jääskeläinen's decision no 4630/2014 was published (in Finnish) on the database of this website.
Further information is available from Principal Legal Adviser Pasi Pölönen, tel. +358 (0)9 432 3345.