Only two formal complaints were actually received about the Babestation saga that made headlines right across the world

THE telecoms regulator ran into difficulty when trying to solve the problem of householders receiving misplaced calls to a sex chat-line when emails about the controversy were blocked from sending.

Some messages sent from ComReg, which was tasked with solving controversy over ‘Babestation’ calls, ended up falling foul of the regulator’s internal email system.

They were quarantined due to the inclusion of “possible profanity” and requests had to be made for the IT Department to allow them to be sent.

Records from ComReg and the Department of Communications released under FOI reveal how several government ministers were being briefed on the controversy, including Minister Denis Naughten.

The investigations came after complaints from Minister Michael Ring that one of his constituents was being “inundated with telephone calls from people trying to contact these sex chat lines both day and night”.

The saga ended up being reported around the world with Babestation sending three models to personally apologise to residents of Westport in Co Mayo.

However, ComReg has said that only two complaints were ever actually received from residents suggesting the scale of the problem may well have been somewhat exaggerated.

The records show that the simplest solution might have been for the worst-affected resident to have his phone number changed.

However, that option was immediately ruled out. An internal email explained: “The customer is aware that he can have a number change, but is declining.”

As ComReg tried to figure out how best to manage it, the story continued to spread internationally.

One internal email explained: “Ringer [Minister Ring] complaining about Westport residents getting calls from adult chatline callers made the Kuala Lumpur Times.”

Internal records show there were concerns over what exactly ComReg could do given that the adult phone lines were UK services.

One email said: “It would seem at first blush to be an inadvertent error (as there doesn’t seem to be any benefit, financial or otherwise, in seeking to divert their own customers to a small Irish town?) and we can contact Babestation etc accordingly.”

In the end, Worldwide Digital – the company who run the lines – agreed they would change all the numbers after being alerted to the problem.

A note of caution emerged in ComReg however. One email explained: “Hopefully they’ll check that the range they change to isn’t going to affect another 09 area like Athlone or Galway instead.”

The numbers were changed, and Worldwide Digital also switched their advertising material to ensure there would be no more unwanted calls.

“Hopefully this will solve the problem of the nuisance calls and [Mr X] can once again answer his phone,” an email said.

Another joked the solution might cause a different set of problems: “Next, we’ll have to deal with complaints from callers than can’t get through!”

A separate letter from the UK’s Phone-paid Services Authority warned that further similar controversies were a distinct possibility.

They said: “Ultimately any provider of adult services in the UK could have been the focus of this problem, because the current prohibition in Ireland on adult services will likely continue to cause calls to UK numbers.

“Ireland’s cable/satellite system is pretty much identical to ours, so in effect your viewers have the same Sky/satellite boxes and access to all the same babe channels, often on the exact same channel numbers.”

They said the long-term solution was for the phone numbers to be advertised in a way that Irish callers knew they must use a UK prefix.

In a subsequent email, ComReg said there was no general prohibition on adult services in Ireland and that a better solution would be for the phone lines simply to say they weren’t available to Irish callers.

“That might at least reduce the misdial levels,” it said.

In a statement, ComReg said: “[We use] standard email filtering systems which may hold certain material. Any such emails would be reviewed and released by the IT unit, where appropriate.”

Asked about the volume of complaints they received, they said: “ComReg received two consumer complaints about this matter. ComReg worked with its UK counterparts, Ofcom and the Phone-Paid Services Authority, and Irish phone networks to resolve this issue and ensure that such unwanted calls are avoided.”

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Controversial blood donation ban was not removed entirely because of risk of future “emerging sexually transmitted diseases”

A CONTROVERSIAL ban on gay men donating blood was reduced as there was no evidence it would increase HIV risk.

However, a controversial one year ‘celibacy’ rule was maintained whereby gay men could not have sex for a year before giving blood because of fears of future “emerging sexually transmitted diseases”.

A report from the Irish Blood Transfusion Service (IBTS) explained how it was not an “irrational fear” to believe a new infection or a mutant HIV strain could develop in coming years.

Written by Dr William Murphy, the IBTS Medical and Scientific Director, it said: “A sexually transmitted infection spreads much faster in the MSM [men who have sex with men] community, with complex dynamics.”

He wrote: “While the risk from heterosexual encounters is not insignificant, MSM comprise a substantial proportion of the potential risk of spread of a new sexually transmitted infection in Ireland.”

Evidence had clearly shown that changing the ban from a long one to a shorter one caused no increased risk of HIV transmission.

Four countries – Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the UK – had changed their rules on gay men giving blood to reduce the length of time in which they were prohibited from donating.

None of the countries had experienced an increase in the number of blood donations found to be HIV positive and in the UK, the rate had in actual fact dropped.

Dr Murphy said: “Whether this decrease can be attributed to the change in deferral policy cannot be determined, but it is encouraging that the observed change was in the direction of decreased incidence of disease.”

The report describes in detail the near-impossible task of trying to balance public health benefits with non-discrimination while predicting the future.

Dr Murphy wrote: “It will always be very difficult or impossible to show that removing the lifelong ban or replacing it will make patient safety better, so that the reason for removing it, even if there are no sound reasons for keeping it, lies outside the strict realm of patient safety.”

The report explained also that if a lifetime ban was in place for gay men, then by rights it should be needed for countless other groups to whom it did not currently apply.

Dr Murphy wrote: “If a lifelong ban were necessary … then a similar lifelong ban would be necessary for men who have sex with sex workers, women who have sex with men who have sex with sex workers, women who have sex with MSM [men who have sex with men] and so forth.”

The recommendations made by the IBTS to reduce the ban to a year was accepted by the Department of Health.

The changes, which were announced in January, said that gay men would be “deferred” from donating blood for a year after their last sexual encounter with a man, and that anyone with a sexually transmitted infection would be banned for five years after.

The Department of Health asked that a surveillance system be put in place to monitor the impact of the policy change and that clear plans were made to communicate the rationale behind the decision to blood donors and the Irish public.

The Department of Health also received letters from members of the public, several suggesting the lifetime ban should have stayed.

One person against removal of the ban wrote: “This proposal originates in the simplistic view that ‘equality’ between gay and heterosexual people should be imposed regardless of the irrationality of the idea … just because other countries have done this is no reason why Ireland should follow suit.”

Another addressed their letter directly to Health Minister Simon Harris and said: “Your job is to run the health service … there are far more pressing issues that you should be focusing on and less of chasing easy media wins.”

Gay men who were married and monogamous also wrote to say they felt the one-year ‘no sex’ ban was discriminatory.

One wrote: “It is extremely insulting to think that conditions being considered, such as ‘not having had sex with another man in the previous year’ would apply to myself and my partner of [30+] years who have been in a monogamous relationship for all that time and who are now married.”

Others also wrote to ask that a ban on Irish people who lived in the UK in the 1980s and 1990s be lifted. It was introduced because of fears over the spread of BSE [mad cow disease].

Another person who had given blood for years was given a ‘false positive’ for HIV and complained that he (or she) had since been barred from donating.

The IBTS said in a statement: “[We have] a number of criteria which a person must fulfil before they are eligible to donate. One of these excludes people from donating based on their behaviour.

“We do not ask any donor about their marital status, the deferral is based on the behaviour which creates the risk, which is the sexual activity of men who have sex with men.”

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Untangling the inheritance tax loophole: shedding light on why Fianna Fáil government introduced the changes

In 2000, the then Fianna Fáil government introduced dramatic changes to inheritance tax law.

Those changes had an unintended consequence and in recent years were being used by very wealthy people to give property tax-free to their children.

This loophole could only be used by those in a position to purchase new properties outright, and was costing at a very conservative estimate €3.5 million a year.

Some families used it to gift several properties to their children.

In the single worst case, a parent transferred €4.2 million worth of properties to their four children: with each of the four houses worth €1.7 million, €1 million, €800,000, and €700,000 respectively.

The reasons behind the original changes remain unclear and the Department of Finance has looked for €200 in search and retrieval fees to release records relating to its introduction under Freedom of Information law.

From documents already released, it is clear the Revenue had concerns about it even then.

However, their request for a cap on the value of the property allowed was disregarded by the Department of Finance.

If you can donate even a small amount, it will be possible to pursue this request and hopefully find out who pushed for this change, and more importantly why.

The Department of Finance is seeking €200 for the records: you can support me on GoFundMe here:

Was the loophole deliberate?

Was there awareness that this could be open to abuse?

Many of the tax loopholes we have heard so much about in recent years were introduced during a relatively short period of time around the turn of the millennium by Fianna Fáil governments.

Why was it so many of them seemed to benefit only those with enormous wealth? Was it just a coincidence?

I can’t promise release of these FOI documents will solve the mystery but it will at least cast some welcome light on what was going on at the time.

For more on this story, you can read some of the the background here.

The documents, once released, will be published here on the blog and will not be for commercial use.

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The chain of letters between Simon Coveney and the EU Commission over introduction of water charges

HOUSING Minister Simon Coveney was under significant pressure from the EU Commission to persist with the introduction of water charges, a previously unreleased letter has revealed.

Mr Coveney was told that the EU Commission had serious concerns over how Ireland’s approach to water fitted in with legislation.

In a letter – details of which were not known until now – Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella told the minister that he understood why Ireland had temporarily suspended charges for domestic users.

This followed a meeting between Mr Vella and Mr Coveney on July 8 in which the EU were briefed on the bitter debate in Ireland over charges.

However, Commissioner Vella wrote: “Let me reiterate here, as I have already done during our meeting, that the Commission has concerns over how the current situation in Ireland fits with the requirements of the Water Framework Directive.

“On the other hand, we take note of the fact that the Irish authorities have decided they need a certain amount of time in order to assess how best to provide a service that meets with the legal and regulatory obligations.”

The sequence of letters began weeks after Minister Coveney was appointed last year.

In the opening piece of correspondence from last June, Commissioner Vella said they had been closely following the debate in Ireland and the proposed suspension of water charges.

However, they quickly pointed out that member states were obliged to take account of the principle of recovery of costs from water services.

They also said that countries were obliged to “ensure an adequate contribution of the different water users including households to the recovery of the costs of water services”.

In response, Minister Coveney wrote to say he appreciated the EU’s efforts in following the debate in Ireland which had been “contentious”.

He explained that to facilitate the formation of a minority government, water charges were to be suspended for a minimum of nine months.

Mr Coveney wrote: “This suspension will provide the space for a more rational debate on the long-term funding of domestic water charges in Ireland.”

He asked for a meeting with the EU Commission to brief them on how it would work.

Three weeks after the meeting, Commissioner Vella again wrote to Minister Coveney in which he expressed his concerns about the Irish approach.

He wrote: “The ‘polluter pays’ principle, enshrined both in EU law, as well as in the legal systems of the EU member states themselves requires that member states put in place specific mechanisms that link the amount and destination of water and water services used by households to the costs they bear in order to be able to do so.”

The letter explained that the directives required different water users be broken up into industry, households, and agriculture for recovery of costs.

Mr Vella said: “It is worth also nothing that domestic water charges are a well-established practice across all member states. Users generally pay for the water they consume and it is difficult to think of an equally effective mechanism for incentivising efficient water use.”

He said that approach had been a precondition for attaining good water quality across the European Union and could still take allow social factors to be taken into account.

Commissioner Vella then expressed his “concerns” over how Ireland was going to meet the requirements of the Water Framework Directive.

“I would like to suggest that we remain in contact over this important matter in the following months and would appreciate being kept informed of developments in this matter,” he said.

In a statement, the Department said that the Commissioner’s letters had emphasised the “central importance of cost recovery and encouraging sustainable consumption through metering”.

They said Ireland required significant investment in its water infrastructure and that we could not “walk away” from our EU obligations, including those in the Water Framework Directive.

Minister Coveney has previously said: “The European Commission will not tolerate continued non-compliance by Ireland and has indicated a willingness to go the distance to force Ireland into compliance through the European Court of Justice.”

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Why are people from some Irish counties six times more likely to end up imprisoned than in others?

THE odds of people from some Irish counties being sent to prison is almost six times higher than the chances for other counties.

People with a Limerick address have by far the highest chance of ending up in jail, an analysis of Irish Prison Service data has revealed.

Only two counties exceeded an average of 500 prison committals per 100,000 of population in the two years examined: Limerick (561) and Co Longford (528).

By contrast, the chances of someone with a Donegal address winding up in jail were a fraction of that of Limerick.

In Donegal, the prison committal rate per 100,000 of population was just 97, making it – by this measure at least – the most law-abiding county in Ireland.

Other counties with very low rates of imprisonment for residents included Meath, Mayo, and Leitrim.

Dublin with by far the largest population was almost identical to the national average with a rate of 285 incarcerations per 100,000 people.

All told, more than 12,700 people were sent to jail in 2014 with that figure rising to almost 13,500 during 2015.

The numbers are remarkably low in some counties with just 83 people from Leitrim imprisoned over the two years. By contrast, Longford, with only a slightly bigger population, had 412 of its residents sent to jail.

The national average was 285 committals per 100,000 of population, with several counties including Laois, Wexford, Kilkenny, Galway, and Dublin all in and around that figure.

Cork, the other big population centre in Ireland, had a far higher rate of imprisonment. For every 100,000 people there, 391 are sent to prison each year, with almost the same figure applying to Co Waterford.

There are also stark provincial differences with Munster having the highest rate of incarceration, mainly because of the levels in Limerick and Cork.

Leinster was next coming in just below the national average, with Connacht third of the four.

The three counties of Ulster had by far the lowest rates of imprisonment with just 135 committals per 100,000 of population there.

For those that do end up in prison, the chances of them serving a lengthy sentence appears to have dropped considerably in the last five years.

In 2010, there were 344 prisoners given a jail term of five years or more. However, by the end of 2015, that had dropped to 240.

The number of people sentenced to life – all convicted murderers – has remained fairly constant however, over the years.

In 2015, there were nineteen prisoners given life, compared to 25 the year before. Numbers have generally been in the low twenties for the past decade.

Most of the people sent to jail however, get much shorter sentences of less than three months.

In 2015, the last year for which full figures are available, nearly three in four people imprisoned got a term of less than ninety days.

There has also been a massive rise in the number of women going to prison, according to official figures.

In 2001, fewer than 1,000 women were sent to jail but fifteen years later, that figure had risen to almost 3,000.

Two of those women were imprisoned for homicide offences, either murder or manslaughter, compared to 42 men.

There were 153 sex offenders sent to jail in 2015, none of whom were women. However, the previous year – two women had been jailed for sexual offences.

More than 550 people were imprisoned for murder attempts, threats to kill, and serious assaults – 41 of them female.

Just over 350 people got jailed for fraud, deception and other similar offences, with 59 of them women and 298 men.

Overall, the vast majority of those sent to jail were from either Ireland, the UK, or the European Union, making up 95% of the total.

Also imprisoned were 268 African people, 194 Asians, 49 from South or Central America, 14 from North America, and three from Australia or Oceania.

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Ireland’s Lord of the parking fines runs up an unpaid bill of more than €40,000

A SINGLE driver has run up unpaid parking fines of more than €40,000 in the leafy suburbs of Dublin.

Details released by Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council reveal how nine separate drivers have amassed bills of at least €7,000 each, sometimes for hundreds of individual offences.

An anonymised list of the worst offenders show that the top nine have ran up a combined unpaid bill of €147,400 in unpaid fines.

The person with the worst record has refused to pay no less than 668 fines, which together come to €40,080.

Fines are charged at the rate of €60 in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown with a higher punishment of €120 applying to those who park in a disabled bay.

The serial offender – with the €40,000 bill – has at least only run up ordinary fines, and has not yet been caught using a disabled space.

The local authority said their parking nemesis had 22 convictions relating to unpaid parking fines and eight separate bench warrants.

They said: “A court has the power to either issue a warrant for arrest or to disqualify the accused from driving. The Council has no authority to enforce such court orders.”

Another individual owes €28,800 for 473 offences, which works out at an average of just over €60.

That means he, or she, has at least once been discovered to have parked in a space designated for people with disabilities.

The next worst serial offender has ran up unpaid fines of €21,540 (359 offences) more than double that of the person in fourth, who owes €10,440 (174).

Another owes €14,320 after being caught 127 times, and in the overwhelming majority of cases it was for use of a disabled parking bay.

The council said they actively pursued pursue non-payers through the courts and during the past three years have secured more than 2,700 convictions.

Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown’s compliance levels have been rising in recent years and in 2016, they reached their highest rate with 78% of those fined paying up.

That was up from a low of 68% in 2013 when a total of 22,065 parking fines were issued.

The council said: “It should be noted that Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council has a policy of pursuing non-payment of fixed charge offence notices through legal proceedings [or] legal action in the District Court.

“In action taken against the above offenders, two vehicles were removed and disposed of in accordance with the appropriate legislation. Two registered owners of vehicles were disqualified from driving through District Court proceedings and multiple convictions have been secured against offenders.”

They also said their compliance rate was in reality higher when unregistered vehicles – usually from abroad – were excluded.

Over the course of the past five years, the local authority has issued just over 120,000 parking fees, which would at a conservative estimate have yielded €7.2 million in revenue had every one of them been paid.

In South Dublin County Council, the problem of repeat offenders does not seem to have been quite so pronounced.

However, enforcement rates are lower there and have hovered between 60 and 70 per cent over the past six years, according to records.

In the South Dublin local authority area, fines are also cheaper at €40, which increases to €60 if not paid after 28 days. Parking in a disabled space incurs an €80 fine. It also jumps after the four week limit to €120.

According to the county council, their worst offender owes €4,640 in fines, with the next highest person at €3,280.

In total, their ten worst cases owe a combined €24,600, significantly lower than the top individual offender in neighbouring Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown.

Enforcement rates in the South Dublin area were just 61% in 2011 and reached their peak the following year when they hit 70%.

Last year, 68% of people in the area who were given a fine paid up either immediately or for the higher amount that kicks in after four weeks.

Dublin City Council do not issue parking fines and instead rely on the infinitely more persuasive use of clamping to keep drivers in line.

Despite its success, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown have said they will not be using clamps and will continue their efforts to pursue non-payers through the courts.

Details of parking fines issued in the fourth Dublin local authority, Fingal County Council, have not yet been made available.

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Ireland’s most senior diplomat in New York told to find new residence because of sky high €29,995-a-month rent

IRELAND’S most senior diplomat in New York was told to find a new residence in the city because the $29,995-a-month rent the taxpayer was paying was far too high.

The Consul General had been living in a duplex apartment in the Big Apple with 4,000 square feet of space and a wraparound balcony with 360 degree unobstructed views of New York’s skyline.

The eight-room property was “much-admired” but because of its size, unique balcony, prized views, and the “exclusive nature of the building” … it also came with a hefty price tag.

In 2013, the Department of Foreign Affairs asked that the residence be moved to a “more cost-effective alternative”.

However, that move ended up taking more than two years – as they struggled to find a suitable property to accommodate the Consul General.

The Department had to agree to two separate roll-overs of the $29,995-a-month lease on exceptional grounds.

The saga began in December 2013 when the lease on the residence came up for renewal and the property owners signalled that they would be upping the rent and were seeking $35,000 a month.

An internal email from one of the diplomatic staff in New York said: “I explained that it would be very difficult to get the agreement of my authorities to such a large increase, particularly given the challenging economic circumstances in Ireland at this time.”

In response, the landlord said that the rental market in New York was booming with the stock market scaling new heights.

The Department of Foreign Affairs made some tentative efforts to find a new property. However, they were told many landlords would not actually accept diplomats as tenants.

An email explained: “This, apparently, has resulted from many cases where New York based diplomats have damaged properties or left them in a very poor condition and have invoked diplomatic immunity to avoid civil law suits for damages.”

The diplomatic staff did look at three properties: one was only half the size of the current residence with small elevators, another had no decent space for entertaining, while another appeared to be two smaller apartments converted into a larger one.

Instead, they went back to their landlord who after some negotiations agreed they could keep the existing apartment for $29,995 per month, with monthly service charges of nearly $2,000.

Back in Dublin, Department bosses agreed to an extension of a single year on condition the Consulate continued to look for a new cheaper property.

By the end of 2014, little progress appears to have been made and the Department again had to “exceptionally” extend the lease for another year.

Efforts to find a new property were proving difficult because the market in New York was “on fire”, according to the newly arrived Irish Consul General Barbara Jones.

An internal email from Fergal Mythen, the Director General of Corporate Services, to Ms Jones said: “We cannot overemphasise the fact that the high cost of the rent remains a matter of concern to the Department.”

The email explained how the annual rent bill needed to be cut from $360,000 per year to a cost of less than $250,000.

A report on the residence explained how the actual rent bill was actually even higher at $388,800 annually when service charges and parking were taken into account.

It extolled the virtues of the current property saying the balcony space in particular was an “oft-cited point of admiration by … guests”. It was also used for a wide variety of events.

The report explained that getting a property for $250,000-a-year would be tricky with “limited” suitable stock in the city even after more than 130 properties were looked at.

One apartment in a new building called UN Plaza was eventually found, which fit the bill with a monthly rental cost of $23,000, which with parking and service charges worked out at $279,600 per year.

However, that was not the end of it and when diplomatic staff went to meet the landlord, they were told there would be a 120 day “termination clause”.

“Our collective assessment is not positive towards the landlord based on these surprise developments,” said an email from Vice Consul Shane Cahill.

Fortunately, a separate apartment in the same building was also available with just a $500-a-month increase on the rent.

“The mission believes the apartment would make a suitable residence,” said an email. A lease on the property was signed off and the Consul General moved into the new apartment early last year.

A spokesman for the Department of Foreign Affairs said: “The Department asked the Consulate in New York to go back to the market to see if a better value for money option was available.

“After an exhaustive search in what is one of the most challenging and expensive real estate environments in the world where identifying suitable space is not easy and can take some time, an alternative premises was identified which did offer better value for money to the Department.

“A three-year lease was signed for the premises … I would take this opportunity to highlight once more the $309,000 savings which will be made over the course of the three year lease.”

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Revenue report shows €140 million in property handed over tax free by wealthy parents to children using loophole

MORE than €140 million worth of property was handed over entirely tax free by parents to their children in just five years using a tax loophole, a Revenue investigation found.

And the scale of abuse of what is known as the dwelling house exemption may actually have been much worse, according to internal documents.

An investigation into the widespread abuse of the exemption by high-wealth individuals explained how it was very difficult for Revenue to even determine if people were taking advantage or not.

A copy of the report obtained under FOI explained: “Cases are coming to attention where wealthy parents are using this exemption to buy and gift houses to their children.

“There is nothing in this exemption as currently drafted to prevent a parent with (say) four children from purchasing a dwelling house for each of them and gifting or bequeathing them … in practice, it can be difficult for Revenue to determine whether or not conditions are satisfied.”

The investigation found multiple instances where people had tried to claim the exemption but had got caught out.

Under the rules, the person inheriting the property had to be resident there for at least three years before it could be gifted to them.

They were also not allowed to own any property because the system was expressly designed to protect people in certain circumstances, if say they were caring for an elderly parent.

In one case, a woman living in France tried to claim that she had been resident in a property she part inherited from her uncle.

In other cases, people tried to claim the exemption on properties they inherited from their parents despite already owning their own house.

The most blatant case involved a man who had just inherited a property tax free from his mother.

A Revenue investigation discovered that he had just transferred three properties into his wife’s name and “therefore, he has qualified for the exemption”.

Some families had used the exemption multiple times to buy properties for several of their grown-up children.

In one case, three children in a family had a house purchased for them and in another case, four were gifted a property tax-free.

The report said that 14 of the properties involved were worth more than €1 million and passed from parent to child without a single cent being paid in inheritance tax.

In the single worst case, a parent transferred €4.2 million worth of properties to their four children: with each of the four houses worth €1.7 million, €1 million, €800,000, and €700,000 respectively.

Overall, the evidence found by the Revenue Commissioners suggested it had happened 440 times between 2011 and 2015, with over 100 of the cases involving properties worth more than €400,000.

“The total market value of the 440 properties gifted by parents to children and claiming the [exemption] comes to €141.89 million,” the report said.

It suggested that the tax lost was at a minimum €18.7 million but that the true cost was probably far higher than that.

The report said many people assumed they did not have to make a tax return if they believed that did not owe anything.

It explained: “It is highly likely that the public perception with many is that if no [inheritance tax] is owed then they don’t need to engage with Revenue at all.”

The report also said that routine investigations would not have uncovered much evidence of the loophole because the transfers were effectively legal at the time and would not be looked at from “a compliance perspective”.

The Revenue examined tax planning material from major accountancy firms, some of whom were encouraging “careful planning” to use the exemption to pass on wealth.

The inquiry also revealed that use of the dwelling house exemption was growing rapidly, with a 19% increase in cases between 2014 and 2015.

A separate set of FOI documents show how when the loophole was originally introduced in 2000, the Revenue Commissioners even then expressed concerns.

They suggested that a cap should be put in place on the value of the property but this was not heeded and the loophole remained in place until it was removed late last year.

In a statement, Revenue said they were currently investigating the scale of abuse for 2016 and hoped to have a report ready for the Department of Finance by Easter.

Asked if anything could be done retrospectively to deal with cases of flagrant abuse, they said they could not comment on individual cases.

“In general terms, the conditions that have to be met to qualify for an exemption and to avoid any subsequent withdrawal of the exemption, are those that are in force at the date of the gift or the inheritance,” they said.

“The changes to the dwelling house exemption in Finance Act 2016 apply to gifts or inheritances taken on or after 25 December 2016. These changes have no retrospective implications for gifts or inheritances received before [then].”

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Department of Finance anger over “wholly inaccurate” Oxfam report painting Ireland as a tax haven

THE Department of Finance were angered over a report by Oxfam which highlighted Ireland as a tax haven saying it painted an “wholly inaccurate picture”.

The report Tax Battles had claimed that Ireland was the sixth worst country in the world for facilitating tax avoidance, behind only Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Singapore.

Internal correspondence between the Department of Finance and Oxfam reveals how the Irish government bitterly disputed the report.

And when Oxfam looked for a meeting with the Minister for Finance Michael Noonan to discuss the issues raised, they were told he was not available due to “diary commitments”.

A letter sent to Oxfam’s chief executive Paul Clarken picked apart the Tax Battles report saying Ireland met none of the international criteria for being a tax haven.

It said inclusion of the 12.5% corporation tax rate was “totally inappropriate and inaccurate”.

“Ireland’s corporate tax policies are designed to attract real and substantive operations to Ireland,” it said. “Ireland has not been and never will be a brass-plate location.”

The Oxfam report also criticised Ireland’s tax incentives including the latest government initiative, the so-called ‘Knowledge Development Box’.

The Department insisted: “While a number of countries not included on the Oxfam list have Boxes which failed [international] rules and were considered harmful, Ireland’s Box was fully approved.”

Minister Noonan’s officials also objected to Oxfam criticism of profit shifting activities, where multinationals aggressively avoid tax by moving profits from high tax countries to low tax jurisdictions.

They wrote: “These misunderstandings of the Irish regime and Ireland’s positions on international tax issues contribute to the fundamentally inaccurate portrayal of Ireland as a tax haven.”

The Minister’s Private Secretary then said officials would be made available to discuss their “serious concerns” over the report.

In response, Oxfam’s Jim Clarken said that they welcomed Department of Finance efforts to pursue international tax reform.

However, they said that developing countries were still losing US$100 billion in tax revenue because of the policies of countries like Ireland.

Mr Clarken again sought a personal meeting with Minister Noonan ahead of his appearance at an Oireachtas Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform.

The Department declined the request citing “on-going diary commitments” but said officials were still available.

In a statement, the Department said: “It was determined that as most of the issues were around the technical analysis carried out in the reports and as wanted to discuss the detailed technicalities with Oxfam, it made greater sense for discussions to take place between officials and Oxfam rather than between Oxfam and the minister. A meeting was subsequently held between Department officials and Oxfam.”

The charity said they had met with the Department in February to discuss their concerns but that they “stand over the findings” of their report.

They said they would be meeting again with officials to discuss two follow-up reports on corporate tax and tax havens in Europe.

In a statement, they said: “The Irish government relies on the OECD definition to assert it isn’t a tax haven. We contend that such standards are insufficient in relation to corporate tax avoidance.”

They also said that a study by the EU Commission in 2016 on aggressive tax planning structures showed that Ireland had no less than ten of the structures identified in place.

“We [also] pointed out that Ireland has not been very supportive of attempts by the EU to introduce more effective measures to end corporate tax avoidance such as public country by country reporting,” they said.

“We also questioned Ireland’s commitment to transparency as it has not agreed to the public element of country by country reporting rules, public listing of beneficial ownership and making tax rulings public.”

Internal memos also reveal that coverage of the report internationally was being closely monitored by the Department of Finance.

The fiscal attaché of Ireland’s Permanent Representation in the EU wrote to the Department saying: “Most papers are rather sceptical towards the report.

“The FAZ (Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung) speculates that European countries are heavily represented in the Oxfam study primarily because of our higher tax transparency, and a high awareness level of tax practices in European countries, which is not the case for ‘some really infamous tax havens’ elsewhere in the world.”

A tax briefing prepared for Ireland’s Ambassador in the United States also included speaking points on how best to handle questions about the report.

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Government Chief Whip Regina Doherty paid her mother €2,150 from secretarial allowance available to ministers

FINE Gael Minister Regina Doherty paid her own mother more than €2,000 for “secretarial assistance” out of a little-known allowance available to politicians.

The payment was made to her mum Maria Dalton last October through a single invoice that was issued for a total of €2,150.

The bill was part of more than €570,000 paid out by the Oireachtas through what is known as the special secretarial allowance.

It allows government ministers to pay for secretarial assistance, public relations advice, IT services, and for training.

TDs and Senators also sometimes use it to hire temporary vouched employees on short-term contracts instead of hiring full-time assistants.

Details of the payments released following an FOI request show that Regina Doherty spent €2,912.50 under the scheme, €2,150 of which went to her mother.

Repeated attempts to contact Ms Doherty for comment were met with no response.

The Fine Gael press office did not respond to queries from March 16 saying Ms Doherty was in the United Arab Emirates for St Patrick’s Day.

Requests for comment this week to the party press office, to her special adviser, and to Minister Doherty herself all met with no response either.

Two Fine Gael ministers hired a former party election candidate for secretarial assistance, paying him, and later his firm, a total of €18,200.

Both Damien English and Helen McEntee used the services of Sean McKiernan and then his company Consilium Communications for secretarial services last year.

Mr McKiernan is a former Fine Gael councillor in Cavan and ran for the Seanad in last year’s election, failing to win a seat.

Minister English said in a statement: “As part of the annual vouched allowance for Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas, payments were made to Sean McKiernan, and subsequently to his business Consilium Communications, for the provision of secretarial assistance.”

Mr English also twice paid for public relations advice from Kevin Kinahan, a professional therapist and consultant hypnotherapist, from the Gold Clinic in Dublin.

Mr Kinahan was paid just over €1,100 across two invoices for PR services.

Minister Dara Murphy ran up a bill of €28,532 last year for public relations advice. He used the services of a Dublin-based businessman Declan O’Leary and his firm T/A Media Mentor.

One of the front-runners for leadership of the Fine Gael party, Simon Coveney, also ran up a small PR bill in the early part of last year.

Mr Coveney paid out just over €5,500 to the Cork-based firm Cameo Communications.

Tánaiste Frances Fitzgerald also used the special secretarial allowance for public relations advice.

She paid just over €11,000 out to the Communications Clinic, the firm that belongs to Terry Prone and her husband Tom Savage.

Ms Fitzgerald also paid out €2,400 to another firm called Latitude for what was described on the form she filled in for payment as “training”.

More than €9,000 was paid out on behalf of Junior Minister Patrick O’Donovan for public relations advice as well last year. He used PSG Communications, one of the country’s most successful PR firms.

Another minister to pay for PR advice was Fine Gael’s Pat Breen. He paid Claire Gallagher around €4,500 for public relations services in the final months of last year.

Katherine Zappone at the Department of Children also hired external PR help. She used the services of Dr Michael O’Loghlen who was paid €3,916 across four separate invoices from November and December of 2016.

In an explanatory note, the Oireachtas said the secretarial allowance could be used in two ways, for contracts for service or for temporary vouched employees.

A significant chunk of the €570,000 spent went on this type of employment, a cost that arises whether the staff or temporary or full time.

The Oireachtas said: “The purpose of the allowance is to assist towards expenses arising from the purchase of certain secretarial assistance, public relations, information technology (but not web related) and training services.

“The allowance may also be used for remuneration of persons providing secretarial services (i.e. temporary vouched employees). Purchase of equipment are not allowable under the special secretarial scheme. Ministers can opt for an annual fully vouched allowance of €41,092.”

*Some of the amounts referenced above are not reflected in the FOI documents I posted below.

Some of the records relating to the earlier part of last year were released on paper. And the invoices and receipts relating to the document below were issued as separate individual PDF files.

If anybody wants to see a specific one, feel free to contact me.

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