How Irish politicians are able to claim up to €260 per day in unvouched tax-free expenses when abroad

FOUR politicians were able to claim at least €3,000 in tax-free unvouched expenses last year for overseas travel as part of their work at Leinster House.

They were paid as part of a subsistence system that includes special top-ups on daily expense rates for politicians, and does not have to cover hotel or flight costs that are paid separately by the Oireachtas.

One Fianna Fáil Senator Terry Leyden claimed €5,852 in 2015 for expenses to cover eight separate trips he took with the Council of Europe, mostly to Paris and Strasbourg.

On one trip to the French capital departing November 2 and returning November 4, Mr Leyden submitted a claim for expenses of €838.64, according to official records.

Senator Leyden said his travels mostly related to the Council of Europe, where he took his responsibilities as deputy leader of the Irish delegation “very seriously”.

He said: “Everything is totally legitimate, not a bob more or a bob less. I put in the claim, and I deduct where anything like a dinner is hosted for us. The claims are all there, it is what it is. I’m a full time politician and I get paid in accordance with the rules and regulations.”

Terry Leyden TravelThe claims make up a near €250,000 parting gift in overseas travel bills from the Dáil and Seanad for its final full calendar year of 2015.

The single biggest travel bill was run up by the retired Fine Gael TD Olivia Mitchell, who travelled abroad nine separate times last year at a cost of more than €14,000.

A substantial chunk of the bill was run up on a five-day trip to Mexico in October, where return flights ended up costing more than €2,900.

Ms Mitchell travelled to a summit for the Women in Parliaments Global Forum along with her party colleague Senator Imelda Henry.

Olivia Mitchell also submitted €4,399 in subsistence claims, including one for €729 for a five-night trip to Strasbourg in June of last year.

She said: “Any subsistence would have been mainly for travel in respect of my membership of the Council of Europe and some in respect of my membership of the Foreign Affairs Committee.”

Olivia Mitchell TravelTwo other politicians, both of whom have just lost their Dáil seats – Michael McNamara of Labour and Senator Joe O’Reilly of Fine Gael – also claimed more than €3,000 in expenses, the official records show.

Michael McNamara travelled abroad eleven times, mainly for Council of Europe business and also as an election monitor in Azerbaijan. His subsistence claims totalled €3,264.

He said: “There is a certain amount that the Oireachtas determine that they pay for meals etc and no Oireachtas member has any control over that amount – it is predetermined and not determined by the politician themselves.

“As regards hotels, I have consistently sought to stay in the cheapest hotels possible. I declined to stay in a four star hotel when one was booked for me for one session. I took that work very seriously, participated fully and produced reports.”

Michael McNamara TravelJoe O’Reilly travelled overseas seven times and claimed €3,155 in expenses, which included a claim for €749.36 on a four night trip to Paris.

Asked about the claims, Mr O’Reilly said he would call back to discuss but has not made contact since.

Joe O'Reilly TravelThe former Ceann Comhairle Seán Barrett was among the more frequent travellers last year, according to records released under FOI by the Oireachtas.

He travelled to New York, Bucharest, Lisbon, Rome and Prague – all for events organised for speakers of parliaments all over the world.

The bill run up for a trip to New York in late August came to more than €4,100, including €2,028 for a flight, €1,382 for a four-night stay there, and a subsistence claim of €699.

Mr Barrett stayed in New York from August 29 until September 2 where he was attending the Fourth World Conference of Speakers.

A return flight to Bucharest in May for the former Ceann Comhairle ended up costing €1,523, the records said but no cost was listed for accommodation. That trip was taken on an “invitation from [the] Speaker of Romania”.

The Oireachtas said: “The Ceann Comhairle was formally invited to attend all of these events in his capacity as Ceann Comhairle (Speaker) of Dáil Éireann. The Houses of the Oireachtas Service operates a strict travel policy and always strives to find the cheapest flights possible.

“However, occasionally due to attendance in the Dáil or for other official work related business, travel arrangements are made at short notice and in these instances costs may be hihger.

“The subsistence amounts payable to the Ceann Comhairle and indeed to all Members are at the officially approved rates set down by the Department of Public Expenditure.

“In New York the cost of the hotel was the ‘best available rate’ for the hotel in question and government or other discount rates were not available.”

Sean Barrett Travel

Subsistence claims on certain types of overseas travel for politicians can end up being particularly high because of a top-up scheme, which allows large daily payments dependent on the destination city.

For example, meetings of the Council of Europe in Paris are paid at a daily rate of €146 with a top-up of 80%, bringing the daily rate to €262.

The enhanced rates are designed to cover the cost of so-called “casual entertaining”, and were first introduced in the 1950s.

The existence of these top-up rates has been questioned by the Comptroller and Auditor General on two separate occasions but they have not been reformed. The scheme is unique to politicians, and is not replicated in any other part of the public service.

You can read out more about these bonus subsistence rates at: http://www.rte.ie/news/investigations-unit/2015/0116/673121-department-refuses-to-reform-special-bonus-expense-system/

You can see the full records of travel for the Oireachtas for 2015 in the spreadsheet below:

 

An edited version of this article appeared in the Sunday Times at the weekend: http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/ireland/article1675322.ece?CMP=OTH-gnws-standard-2016_03_05

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