EU Commission refuses access to correspondence with Irish government over Apple state aid case

Last month, I looked for copies of correspondence between the EU Commission and the Irish government over the Apple state aid case and delays in collecting the €13 billion in tax.

It was, perhaps not surprisingly, refused.

Am open to seeking a review of it if anyone had any thoughts.

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Almost €20 million paid out in pensions, lump sums, and termination pay to former politicians last year

THE taxpayer paid out close to €20 million last year in pensions, lump sums, and other retirement benefits for former politicians.

The huge €19.67 million bill was inflated by large golden handshakes for TDs and Senators who had retired or lost their seats in the last general election.

Thirteen different politicians received more than €200,000 last year, their payments boosted by generous retirement lump sums available from the Oireachtas.

Several of them were long-serving Labour TDs who had served in senior roles during the last coalition government, including Ruairi Quinn, Pat Rabbitte, and Eamon Gilmore.

The largest individual pensions however, are still being paid to a group of formerly powerful politicians including Brian Cowen and Bertie Ahern.

Both received annual pensions of €134,500 last year, made up of their pensions from the Oireachtas and from the Department of Finance for their time as ministers and as Taoiseach.

The next highest pensions were paid to two other former taoisigh, John Bruton who received more than €126,000 and the late Liam Cosgrave who was paid more than €118,000.

Overall, €9.56 million was paid out in “basic pay”, the standard yearly pension paid to former TDs and Senators by the Oireachtas.

The size of the payments varies enormously from upwards of €50,000 for long-serving politicians to just a few thousand euro for those who were in Leinster House for a short period of time.

More than 300 ex-TDs and Senators were in receipt of some form of pension payment last year, with the average working out at €29,718.

Because it was an election year, the overall amount paid out climbed dramatically because of a variety of lump sum and termination payments designed to ease former members out of the Dáil and Seanad.

Pension lump sums of €3.37 million were paid out to 36 different politicians, with the average payment there working out at just over €93,000.

The largest lump sum payments were made to some of the longest-serving politicians in Ireland: Labour’s Emmett Stagg who got €161,508, Fine Gael’s Dan Neville with €153,258, and Fianna Fáil’s John Browne, paid €152,758.

Nineteen different politicians received lump sums exceeding six figures including several former Fine Gael ministers like John Perry and Jimmy Deenihan.

A total of 87 ex-public representatives received a combined €1.14 million in what are known as termination lump sums.

This is paid to those of pension age but also younger politicians who lost or vacated their seats, who would be too young to be paid their pension.

These payments all ranged between €10,800 and €16,000 depending on the politician’s length of service in parliament.

In addition, €1.9 million was paid out in termination pay which is a stepdown payment for TDs and Senators leaving Kildare Street.

It can be paid for up to a year depending on how long the politician has been in Leinster House, and is available irrespective of age.

It is open to former politicians to gift or refund parts of their pension payments and some have done so in the past. However, the Oireachtas does not release details of that type of gifting.

For ministerial pensions, which are paid by the Department of Finance, two people are listed as having surrendered payments last year.

Former minister Eithne Fitzgerald gave back €16,982, virtually all her €17,303.52 ministerial pension while President Michael D Higgins surrendered €36,906.48, again almost all the €37,305.32 due to him.

Ministerial pensions cost €3.64 million last year, paid out to 131 different people according to figures from the Department of Finance.

You can see the full list of those here.

Overall, the highest payment was made to Labour’s Emmett Stagg who received €247,231 after serving 29 consecutive years in the Dáil, as well as a spell as a minister.

That was made up of five separate payments: a six-figure lump sum worth €161,000, a termination lump sum of just under €16,000, termination pay of €35,815, a ministerial pension of €15,683, and a TD pension of €18,296.

Next up was Fianna Fáil’s John Browne who got €245,134, again made up of the same five types of separate payments.

Three senior figures from Labour – Ruairi Quinn, Pat Rabbitte, and Eamon Gilmore – rounded out the top five, with payments of between €229,000 and €240,000.

The Oireachtas said their pension system was a “contributory scheme”. A spokeswoman explained: “Members elected pre-2013 contribute six percent and they also pay the public service pension levy. Those elected post-2013 contribute thirteen percent and pay the public service pension levy.”

The Department of Public Expenditure said ministerial pensions were calculated based on length of service and the salary the person had before retirement.

They said: “The salaries of the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and other officeholders have been substantially reduced since 2008, and will not be restored under the Public Service Pay and Pensions Bill 2017.

“Those reduced salaries, like for all public servants, are also currently subject to the pension related deduction, which will be changed to a permanent ongoing [payment] … from 2019.”

They said a raft of other reforms had been introduced for ministerial pensions including a restriction on their payment until age 65, a prohibition on payment if the person still sits in the Seanad or Dáil, and the abolition of severance payments.

Two provisos to the data. There are instances where TDs with long public service (in for instance education) served just a single term in the Oireachtas so any calculations below reflect both the previous job and their political career.

Similarly, there are a couple of cases where lump sums would have been previously paid to TDs if say they had lost their seat before and regained it at a subsequent election.

  • If you paid back some of your pension last year or believe the figures here are incorrect, let me know and I will update the spreadsheet.
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Extraordinary success of Wild Atlantic Way sees “bottle necks” develop around Cliffs of Moher and the Dingle Peninsula

THE Wild Atlantic Way has proven so successful that major “bottlenecks” are starting to develop on the route in peak season.

Fáilte Ireland has said long delays and capacity issues are starting to “negatively affect the visitor experience” for tourists coming to Ireland, according to an internal brief.

The documents, prepared for senior management, explain how the tourism agency hopes instead to send visitors further inland to take pressure off the busiest routes.

Described as a major challenge in the brief for management, Fáilte Ireland said they needed to make sure they could “future proof [their] hero asset”.

The “bottlenecks” are on the most popular part of the route from the Cliffs of Moher in Clare down towards Dingle as well as the Ring of Kerry.

The briefing said: “This presents an opportunity to take advantage of existing geographies with a strong tourist offering that are adjacent to the Wild Atlantic Way.”

They said in Clare, visitors should be coaxed into exploring the Burren landscape to take the pressure off Doolin and other towns.

In Kerry, they discussed creating a feature called ‘The Landscapes that inspired Star Wars’ to try and “spread visitors wider” along the route and to take advantage of the cameo of Skellig Michael in the latest instalment of the movie saga.

“These ‘drives’ will not be branded Wild Atlantic Way,” the brief said. “However, they will be presented based on their own story or attraction to potential visitors as a visitor experience in proximity to the [route].”

They said they hoped to have four new drives and two themed itineraries and trails in place by the end of this year to ease the pressures on Counties Clare and Kerry.

Fáilte Ireland said they wanted to encourage tourism with a better regional spread and that would be less seasonal.

A spokesman said: “Otherwise, if numbers simply continue to grow into the usual hotspots during high season, we will have greater congestion, less value for money and a diminished visitor experience.

“In terms of the Wild Atlantic Way, our domestic marketing over the last year has created greater emphasis on the northern stretch of the route.”

The spokesman said for instance that Slieve League in Donegal, with its 600-metre tall cliffs, was as spectacular as the Cliffs of Moher but far less visited.

He also said that the Ireland’s Ancient East campaign was in part inspired by spreading growth around the country and “avoiding bottlenecks”.

Separately, internal records also reveal how Fáilte Ireland came under intense pressure to extend the Wild Atlantic Way project but were wary any such decision could “open the floodgates” for other areas looking to get included.

Campaigners had been lobbying to have the route signage brought to Courtmacsherry in Cork and the Seven Heads Peninsula.

Internal documents explain that including the area around the peninsula had originally been considered problematic because the roads were too narrow for two-way traffic in places.

Local businesses complained that they had been particularly badly hit as tourists would rigidly follow the Wild Atlantic Way signposts and ignore the town.

Among those supporting their cause were Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin who described the area as “extremely picturesque and enchanting” in a letter to Fáilte Ireland.

An internal email also explained how the issue had become divisive in the area between those “on the physical route … and those who perceive they are being disadvantaged”.

Fáilte Ireland said: “[We have] agreed to extend the current route of the Wild Atlantic Way to Courtmacsherry and the addition of a discovery point in [the village].

“We have also agreed to investigate the appropriate mechanism to include the Seven Heads Coastal Route as a component of the Wild Atlantic Way.”

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Five-star hotels, business class flights, and the €4,000 airfare so a minister wouldn’t miss a family event

ENTERPRISE Ireland spent over €4,000 flying a government minister from the USA to a family event in Spain because they didn’t want him to miss a trade mission.

The state body brought junior minister Pat Breen to Minneapolis and Saint Paul late last year for their inaugural “Life Sciences” trade mission there .

However, they later discovered that Mr Breen was double-booked for a family event in the south of Spain, which he did not want to miss.

To make sure he could do both, Enterprise Ireland ended up paying €4,398 for a flight from Minneapolis to Malaga last September.

The cost was driven up dramatically by an overnight business class flight from the US to Paris Charles de Gaulle where Mr Breen caught his connecting flight to Spain.

By comparison, the outgoing trip from Dublin to Minneapolis via Chicago had only cost €887, bringing the total flight cost to €5,285.

The air ticket was part of more than €30,000 spent on the three-day trade mission last September, records from Enterprise Ireland reveal.

Close to €16,000 was spent on a reception with “other costs” of €4,437 run up during the event.

It also included a €2,700 hotel bill from the four-star Radisson Blu in Minneapolis, which covered the cost of Minister Breen and two staff.

Three nights for each of the three at the hotel in the “Twin Cities landmark” was charged at the rate of just over €300 each night.

That was not the most expensive hotel that Enterprise Ireland booked for Mr Breen last year however.

That accolade was reserved for the Oberoi Hotel in the Indian city of Bengaluru (formerly known as Bangalore) where the Clare TD spent his final night of a trade mission last November.

A second-floor room at the five-star hotel ended up costing just over 30,000 rupees, the equivalent of almost €400 based on this week’s exchange rates.

The hotel is one of the finest in the city with each room having its own private balcony overlooking the property’s “vast, exquisite gardens”.

It was one of a string of five-star hotels that Mr Breen stayed in during his stay in India.

He also spent two nights at the Oberoi in Mumbai, another of the country’s finest hotels with “an unrivalled position on the exclusive Marine Drive, with unparalleled views of the ocean and the Queen’s Necklace [a local landmark]”.

The accommodation there was slightly cheaper, this time at just 25,000 rupees per night with the total cost around €650.

Mr Breen stayed two nights in the capital New Delhi as well, this time at the ITC Maurya not far from the Irish Ambassador’s €29,000-a-month residence in the city.

The cost of that two-night stay was 51,000 rupees, again just over €650 at current exchange rates.

Overall, the bill for Mr Breen’s accommodation came to €1,614, according to a table of costs provided by Enterprise Ireland.

His flights for the trip – business class via Abu Dhabi and including internal transfers – set the taxpayer back €3,345.

Altogether, the trade mission, which involved India and the Gulf States, cost almost €85,000 of which €19,000 was clawed back through “client participation” fees.

A reception cost €10,303, with transport costs of over €3,000. Venue hire was just under €14,000 while “support” cost €13,233 and €19,237 was spent on promotion and printing.

As part of that trade mission, Minister Charlie Flanagan also travelled to Dubai and the Saudi capital Riyadh; his hotel costs of €606 were paid for by Enterprise Ireland.

Asked about the expense of the Spanish flight for Minister Pat Breen, his department said: “[He] had previously booked personal flights to attend a family event in the Spain in the week of the US trade mission.

“However, as the trade mission was deemed to be of significant importance … and would benefit from the support of a ministerial presence, Enterprise Ireland requested that the minister remain in the US to complete the final engagements of the visit, thus losing his flight bookings to Spain.

“He agreed to do so on the understanding that he could fly directly from the US to Spain to arrive in time for the family occasion. The minister paid for the final leg from Spain to Dublin personally.”

In a statement, Enterprise Ireland said the trade missions were to “key markets” and part of their plans to grow client exports by €5 billion per annum.

They said: “Both trade missions were important for Irish companies to grow exports. The USA is the top global market for the Irish Life Sciences sector which employs over 30,000 people and India is a key market for Irish exports where exports in 2016 were €68 million.”

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Under public pressure, government shut expenses loophole that let ministers claim extra €2,000 in mileage in an election year

AN EXPENSES loophole that allowed cabinet ministers to claim an extra €2,000 a year in tax-free mileage has been closed by the government.

The ‘fresh start’ allowed some ministers, who were appointed to a new job during an election year, to claim a higher rate of mileage twice in a single year.

It meant they could twice claim travel expenses at the higher rate, which applies to the first 4,000 miles they travel in a single year.

However, after controversy over how Health Minister Simon Harris was able to claim the higher rate at both the OPW and the Department of Health last year, the loophole has now been shut.

Documents obtained under FOI show how a memo was prepared for Minister for Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe to address the anomaly.

It said: “The ‘fresh start’ for Ministers/Ministers of State in respect of aggregate mileage in the year of a general election has been the subject of recent attention in the press.

“Reports focused on the perceived tax benefits available to Ministers/Ministers of State as the only group that retains the benefit of a fresh start.”

The memo explained that the idea had originally applied to TDs and Senators when they were paid mileage to and from their constituency to Leinster House.

It was then extended to ministers to “allow parity” with the other politicians.

However, after a new system of travel and accommodation allowances was introduced for TDs and Senators – the mileage system was abolished, leaving ministers as the only ones who could benefit from the old system.

The memo continued: “Public servants who are transferred or promoted from one travelling post to another carry their aggregate mileage and do not receive a fresh start.

“It is recommended that the ‘fresh start’ provisions be dropped from the next election.”

The system was described as a “relic of the former system” and the memo was signed off by Minister Paschal Donohoe who wrote: “I agree to this.”

The memo also said that not every minister who was entitled to the fresh start had even claimed it because not all knew about it.

“Informal contacts with a number of Departments indicate that Ministers/Ministers of State do not routinely claim a fresh start,” said the memo.

“It appears that most of those appointed or reappointed as Ministers/Ministers of State continue with the aggregated mileage carried forward from previous appointments.”

In a letter sent to all government departments, personnel officers were told the ‘fresh start’ had “largely fallen into disuse”.

The instructions said: “It has been decided that Ministers and Ministers of State should be treated on the same annual basis as public servants generally in respect of mileage. In future … [they] will no longer be able to claim a fresh start to their aggregate mileage in a year where a General Election occurs.”

In a statement, the Department said that the arrangements were a “leftover element” of the old mileage system that had once applied to all politicians.

They said: “[The new system] broke the link with members’ [TDs and Senators] mileage and consequently with the need for a fresh start.

“In the interest of consistency, it was decided that Ministers/Ministers of State would in future operate on the same annual basis as all other staff claiming mileage.”

You can read the background to this story at this blog post here.

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Why Irish Water had to put aside €473,000 so former boss John Tierney could get full pension aged 57

IRISH Water had to put aside more than €470,000 as part of a special deal to ensure former boss John Tierney could be paid his full pension aged 57 and after working for just three years at the company.

Documents have revealed how if Mr Tierney stayed in his previous job at Dublin City Council, he would not have been entitled to his full pension until he was sixty.

However, as part of the deal he made when he switched jobs to take up a position as managing director at Irish Water, his pension instead had to be made payable as soon as his contract ended.

Because Dublin City Council would not have paid Mr Tierney his pension until he was sixty – Irish Water had to make up the shortfall to cover the extra three years.

The special deal had to be signed off by the Department of Housing and by the Department of Public Expenditure, according to Irish Water.

According to an internal memo, the pension scheme for Irish Water allowed for former staff to get their pension prior to age 60 but normally on an “actuarially reduced basis”.

However, Mr Tierney’s contract of employment meant he would be paid his full pension immediately “on cessation of his contract”.

The memo explained: “To facilitate what is contractually provided to Mr Tierney, the Trust Deed and Rules of the Scheme will be amended to expressly provide for early retirement on an unreduced basis specific to him.

“This will require Ministerial, Board, and Trustee approval.”

Dublin City Council had told Irish Water that the rules of their pension scheme did not permit any payments until “age 60 at the earliest”.

The memo continued: “Therefore Mr Tierney’s preserved benefits with Dublin City Council will not be payable until age 60.

“This results in a gap in benefits that the Ervia [Irish Water] scheme will need to make up i.e. the Scheme will need to pay full unreduced benefits at age 57.”

The cost of providing the pension immediately was calculated at €444,000. A further €29,000 was added for the “interest cost” to reflect the fact that the city council would not be making any payments until Mr Tierney turned sixty.

Altogether, the package would cost €473,000 based on current market conditions, Irish Water’s pension advisors Aon Hewitt wrote.

Irish Water said the special package was part of the “contractual entitlements” of Mr Tierney based on his long service in local government.

They said: “Mr Tierney was a member of the Ervia Superannuation [pension] scheme which participates in the Public Sector Transfer Network (PTSN). As he transferred his prior pensionable service, Mr Tierney was entitled to receive a pension based on his combined Ervia and local authority service.”

The Department of Housing said staff who transferred from local authorities to Irish Water generally did so on the basis that their pensions would “not be less favourable” than had they stayed in their previous jobs.

They said: “Mr Tierney’s particular superannuation [pension] arrangements form part of his contract agreed with Ervia and reflects the fact that he had substantial prior service in the local government sector.

“At the time of Mr Tierney’s appointment, the then Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources had responsibility for Ervia, and he approved the contract with the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and … the Minister for [the] Environment.”

The Department of Public Expenditure declined to comment on whether they had signed off on the deal saying it was a matter for the Department of Housing.

Mr Tierney’s – who had previously been city manager at Dublin City Council – was originally appointed to Irish Water in 2013 on a three-year contract.

However, his time there was dogged by controversy beginning with a notorious RTÉ radio interview in which he said €50 million of the company’s start-up costs had been spent on consultancies.

He later told an Oireachtas committee that consultancy costs would end up being about €85 million while bonus schemes for staff also caused major PR difficulties for the beleaguered utility.

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Over 4,400 accidents and incidents reported on Dublin’s M50 in the space of less than two years

MORE than 4,400 accidents and incidents were reported on the country’s busiest motorway in a period of less than two years.

Crashes and breakdowns on Dublin’s M50 motorway regularly bring traffic to a standstill with lengthy queues a daily fact of life for city commuters.

The scale of problems on the ring road are revealed in a database of incidents, which show more than 200 reports of accidents, debris, tyre blow-outs, and other potentially lethal incidents every single month.

Thirty-one different “major incidents” have been reported since the beginning of last year with another 737 classified as “high priority” events.

The major incidents included collisions, breakdowns, vehicles on fire, and an instance of a cyclist or pedestrian on the road.

Some of the incidents caused chaos on the road for up to four hours, according to the database from Transport Infrastructure Ireland.

“High priority” events occurred at a rate of at least one per day with most of the problems caused by collisions, cars breaking down on the road, or debris on the road surface.

On four separate occasions, animals were spotted wandering the motorway, presenting a major risk to drivers on the busy road.

Cars were left abandoned dangerously on the M50 four times, the records showed, while there were eighteen separate “high priority” incidents involving cyclists or pedestrians on the road.

On one occasion, a dead animal was reported on the motorway and four times, a driver fell seriously ill while driving on the route.

Other incidents categorised as “high priority” included four occasions when there was a spillage of a truck’s load and one instance where a car was discovered to be driving the wrong direction on the motorway.

Sean O’Neill of Transport Infrastructure Ireland said the figures gave an insight into the challenges of managing the country’s busiest route.

He said: “As more people are using the road, [there is] statistically a greater chance of an incident happening. There has been a significant increase in the number of people using the road, 5 to 6% growth in line with economic activity.

“The impact of each event is also greater, because getting resources to an incident takes more time as we try to work with local authorities, gardai, and the fire brigade.”

Altogether, over 1,900 “moderate priority” incidents were also reported on the road along with more than 1,700 “low priority” events.

Breakdowns were the most common problem with 1,897 reported since the beginning of 2016, a rate of about three per day.

There were just over 1,000 collisions on the road, at least one a day, while debris on the road caused problems on 583 separate occasions.

Sixty one drivers ran out of fuel on the motorway while on thirty six separate occasions, a car went on fire on the road.

There were fifteen instances of drivers making emergency calls from the side of the road but giving no response once their call was put through.

Thirteen drivers got hopelessly lost and had to pull in to try and get directions on where they needed to go while five drivers reported witnessing “illegal activities” on the route.

There was one hazardous chemical incident reported and one instance of anti-social behaviour in the incident database.

Transport Infrastructure Ireland said many of the more minor incidents would be largely invisible to the public but that the more serious ones can cause “significant disruption”.

They said they had live services on the network stationed along the route who are ready to respond to incidents as quickly as possible.

Sean O’Neill said: “People are hopping on and hopping off the M50. Sometimes they use it as a rat run around the local network. It is a really challenging but manageable national road. It’s the most critical economic corridor in the country.”

While traffic levels are unlikely to decline and with extra tolling on the route already ruled out by government, Transport Infrastructure Ireland is instead planning variable speed limits at the busiest times.

“What that means is you can inform the driver in real time to tell them to get into another lane,” said Mr O’Neill, “and during rush hour in the morning and the evening, we will regulate traffic flow at a speed, maybe 60, 70, or 80 kilometres per hour.

“It’s the theory of when slower is faster. You are diminishing the chances of an incident happening and it is those incidents which screw everything up. We need a consistent flow of traffic, even if it is a little bit slower.”

They said that system should be up and running in early 2020 but that in the meantime, drivers needed to be sensible during busy traffic, “self-regulate” their speed and in particular avoid “rubbernecking” incidents when they do occur.

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Five-star trip for four politicians to Bangladesh with luxury hotels and business class flights costs over €20,000

A TRIP for four politicians to Bangladesh, which included business class flights and accommodation at a five-star hotel, ended up costing the taxpayer more than €20,000.

The delegation travelled to the Bangladeshi capital in April, staying five nights at the plush Westin Dhaka Hotel in the city.

Flights each cost between €3,250 and €3,500 because business class was booked due to the distance they had to travel.

The accommodation bill at the 29-storey Westin – which features an outdoor heated pool, spa, and no less than five restaurants – came to just over €5,000, according to Oireachtas records.

The delegation was led by Cathaoirleach Denis O’Donovan, who was joined by independent Senator Alice-Mary Higgins, Fine Gael Senator Catherine Noone, and Fianna Fáil TD Bobby Aylward.

Ms Noone explained: “We were gone for five days, I think. There is a rule that once flights are over a certain length of time, they book [business class]. Certainly, none of us were requesting that.

“The trip was heavy going in terms of the workload. We couldn’t be on our own, so we were in the hotel or the conference centre most of the time. It was a very worthwhile trip but it was exhausting to be honest.”

The Dhaka bill was part of more than €141,000 spent so far this year sending TDs and Senators to the four corners of the globe on official business.

Politicians trekked as far as New York, Chicago, Egypt, and Mongolia as part of their work, according to the records.

One of the largest bills was the €6,752 hotel bill for eight politicians who travelled to Egypt as part of a “bi-lateral visit” during which they raised the continued imprisonment of Ibrahim Halawa.

Flights for each of eight cost €820 with a three-night hotel stay at the five-star Cairo Marriott Hotel coming in at €280 per night.

For one of the TDs who travelled – the Green Party’s Eamon Ryan – the accommodation bill came out a little cheaper at just €633 as opposed to the €844 incurred by each of his colleagues.

The Oireachtas said the Marriott hotel had been chosen on the recommendation of the Irish Embassy in Cairo because of “the security situation … and the business to be carried out”.

Ceann Comhairle Séan Ó Fearghaíl has been on multiple trips abroad this year as well as leading the group that visited Cairo in January.

In February, he travelled to Edinburgh for a parliamentary commission meeting and in July, he went to the Isle of Man for the annual “Tynwald ceremony”.

He also travelled to the Slovak capital Bratislava in April, with the bill for the three trips combined coming to a very frugal €780 … although the accommodation in Scotland and the Isle of Man was paid for by the hosts.

The furthest flung location that any of the travelling politicians reached was Mongolia.

In June, Fianna Fáil’s Lisa Chambers headed to Ulaanbaatar for an “election observation mission” with flights costing €1,531 and accommodation costing €678.

TDs and Senators also continue to be paid special bonus subsistence rates when they travel abroad on certain official business.

Under the system, they get “top-ups” of between 60 and 80 per cent over and above normal civil service rates for trips involving organisations like the Council of Europe or the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

On one such four-night trip to Strasbourg this year for example, Independent Senator Ronan Mullen made an expense claim of €1,034 even though his flight and hotel costs were paid for by the Oireachtas.

Mr Mullen did not return calls seeking comment on whether he felt the higher rates were justified for TDs and Senators.

He had travelled to Strasbourg on January 22 and returned to Ireland on January 26 with his hotel stay paid by the Oireachtas and costing €629.

Daily rates of subsistence for places like Strasbourg or Paris can be as high as €260 a day and their continued payment has been questioned by the Comptroller and Auditor General.

In a statement, the Oireachtas said the €20,000 trip to Dhaka was for the general assembly of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, of which Ireland is a member.

They said: “The delegation stayed at the Westin Dhaka Hotel, one of the official hotels recommended by the event organisers. Exceptionally, the delegation flew business class because of the duration of the flight involved.”

The Oireachtas said they did not have responsibility for setting the special subsistence rates that apply to TDs and Senators for travel abroad.

They said: “[We have] no role in the setting of these rates and no changes can be made to the subsistence rates without an authorisation from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.”

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Health Minister Simon Harris frustrated as opening of new €24 million A&E at hospital does little to ease overcrowding

HEALTH Minister Simon Harris wrote to the management of a hospital asking them how overcrowding seemed to be getting worse even after a new €24 million A&E had been opened there.

The new emergency facility had opened at University Hospital Limerick (UHL) during May amid promises of three times more space and far better conditions for patients.

However, no sooner had it opened than the chronic overcrowding that had plagued the previous A&E reared its head once again.

Documents obtained under FOI reveal how the patience of Health Minister Simon Harris finally ran out in July when promised improvements had not taken place.

In an email, he wrote: “I see that UHL has worsened this afternoon rather than improved as per their expectation [and] undertaking. 27 on trollies on a summer day … is far too high and a cause of significant concern.

“We have invested heavily in a new Emergency Department and additional staffing for Limerick. I would be grateful if you could convey my concerns and the need for actions [and] improvement.”

The records also show how the hospital was hit with an outbreak of the highly drug resistant superbug KPC, which has been an ongoing problem in Limerick.

This latest outbreak temporarily shut the orthopaedic/trauma ward of the hospital, causing further chaos in accident and emergency as they tried to deal with surging patient numbers.

The hospital later responded to Minister Harris saying the opening of the new €24 million A&E was never going to solve all their problems.

Chief Executive Colette Cowan told the minister that the emergency department had seen a spike in use of over 5% in its first weeks of operation.

She wrote: “Literature suggests a 10% growth in activity when new infrastructure is opened that normally peaks and reduces after 4 to 8 weeks. A similar rise occurred when the Mater Hospital’s Emergency Department opened.”

Ms Cowan said the hospital had consistently said the new unit would not “resolve our capacity issues” but said it had greatly improved the “privacy and dignity for our patients”.

She wrote: “[A] study in recent weeks … indicated that UHL at 89% occupancy would require 50 additional beds immediately. We continue to operate at 110-115% occupancy.”

The hospital said they had a long list of measures in place to manage their A&E but that they faced a “challenged environment with high activity and low bed stock“.

The documents also reveal how within days of the €24 million facility opening, Limerick was cropping up in daily reports with a surge in patient numbers.

On June 1, an email said: “The system nationally remains very busy and many sites have not been able to de-escalate including … Limerick.”

A separate briefing on the same day said there had been a “very significant admission rate overnight” and that all possible measures were in place to deal with overcrowding.

Repeatedly, throughout the summer the hospital was mentioned in daily briefing reports as one of the “sites of most concern”.

One report described how there was 36 extra beds/trolleys in use on July 5 with “no prospect of reducing same given steady demand”.

A week later, a separate briefing for the Department of Health described how the hospital was now dealing with an outbreak of the superbug KPC (Klebsiella Pneumoniae Carbapenemase).

It said: “One of the biggest risks to flow is that KPC is now in the orthopaedic/trauma ward therefore closed to admissions and transfers out which is impacting very significantly on other wards as this is the main trauma season. Site remains severely congested.”

In a statement, the hospital said a range of measures were in place to “relieve pressure” on the emergency department with a separate plan already in place for this winter.

They said: “While patients still face delays in the new Emergency Department, it provides for a much improved patient experience compared to the old department which had 33 bays and has greatly improved the privacy, safety and dignity of our patients.”

The Department of Health said: “The minister has sought assurances that actions are being taken to address the situation in the UHL Emergency Department. It is understood that the Hospital is currently finalising a plan aimed at improving access to emergency care and reducing trolley numbers.”

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Special accelerated PR contract awarded as matter of “national urgency” to woo European Medicines Agency to Dublin

A SPECIAL accelerated contract for public relations was awarded as a matter of “national urgency” as part of Ireland’s bid to host the European Medicines Agency.

The Medicines Agency, which is based in London, will be moving after Brexit to one of the European Union member states.

The Irish government has been lobbying for it to be relocated to Ireland bringing close to 900 staff and an estimated €180 million into the Irish economy annually.

An internal Department of Health note explained how the only way to award the €93,000 public relations contract quickly enough would be by giving it a special designation.

It said: “To do this we have to proceed on the basis that this is a matter of national urgency and that the requirement for urgent provision of this service could not have been foreseen far in advance.

“A memo on this matter was submitted to the Secretary General and he has now approved the proposed approach, which will involve a small number of potential providers being invited to tender.”

They said that the process would have to be “expeditious” while still involving a “fully transparent selection process”.

The PR firm Hume Brophy was ultimately chosen following the competition and for a three-and-a-half-month period were paid €93,082 with a small amount of expenditure still to be invoiced.

A memo prepared for Health Minister Simon Harris making the case for the contract explained how competition between member states was “already intense”.

It said some countries were already emerging as powerful candidates and were mounting “strong and well-resourced campaigns”.

The memo said Ireland was seen in the EU as having a “very good case” to win the relocation bid but that this needed to be communicated more effectively.

It said this required support both from the government and Irish diplomats, but that the PR campaign needed to be ramped up within a matter of weeks.

The memo said: “Clearly it would not make sense to enter a full competitive process such that the required service would only become available after the key period for promotion of the Irish bid had passed.”

It also explained how normal EU procurement rules could be bypassed where there was a “state of urgency” that made normal time limits impractical.

The memo, written in March this year, said: “The factors giving rise to urgency must be serious, unforeseeable and not due to action or inaction on the part of the contracting authority concerned.”

The Department’s civil servants said they felt the bid for the EMA met these criteria.

“It is now becoming clear that competitor countries are well resourced and already have a presence in Brussels putting their case,” they said. “The Dublin bid must be able to compete for coverage in order to be seen as a realistic option.”

They said a slow full-scale procurement process would stop the Irish bid from getting “on the ground” quickly and be a serious disadvantage.

In a statement, the Department said seven companies had been invited to tender.

They said: “Due to the nature of the work it was deemed essential by the Department that all companies must be able to operate effectively in Brussels and have the capacity to take on the work immediately on award of the contract.”

The Department said they had consulted with the IDA, the Health Products Regulatory Authority and the Office of Government Procurement in the selection process.

They said: “The process fully complied with the [relevant EU regulations] … tenders were evaluated by a five person panel, including two external to the Department of Health. Feedback was provided to unsuccessful applicants and a 14-day standstill period was observed to allow for appeals.”

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