Five reasons (and counting) on why Ireland’s political expenses system is in dire need of reform

The political expenses regime in Northern Ireland has been the subject of a report by an independent review body.

Some of the planned allowances would bring a tear to the eye of many Irish politicians if introduced here, because they are distinctly stingy by Leinster House standards. You can read the full report here.

The most interesting aspect of it all is the simple fact that the expenses regime was subject to outside review to ensure value for money.

Ireland’s system of political expenses is the responsibility of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the Oireachtas.

The chances of any realistic reform are pretty much non-existent while the system is controlled by government and politicians, and designed exclusively for their benefit.

The last major review of political expenses took place in the aftermath of former Ceann Comhairle John O’Donoghue’s resignation.

However, the system that was introduced has, if anything, made the expenses regime even less transparent and more open to abuse.

It is in very serious danger, as John O’Donoghue famously said, of once again falling “into disrepute”. The system lacks transparency, is almost entirely unvouched, and is wide open to abuse.

This abuse is not an imaginary risk. We know of at least two TDs – Ivor Callely and Ned O’Keeffe – who have been convicted of fraudulently claiming expenses for mobile phone expenses in the past.

They were not caught out by the system of checks and balances in place in Leinster House but by the Irish Mail on Sunday. And while those two were the only ones to get caught red-handed, who is to say there were not others?

The irony of the new political expenses system is it makes abuse more difficult to detect as the vagueness and unvouched nature of many allowances makes them extremely difficult to examine in any detail.

Here is a list of just five seriously defective areas in the current political expenses regime, all of which need to be reformed … and reformed by people who do not benefit from them:

  • A system of ministerial mileage that lets ministers declare mileage without any element of vouching whatsoever. The rules on it are vague and allow for mileage to be claimed for sporting events, shopping, or even at family events. The government said that ministers could still technically be working as “private activities” can easily “become mixed with public duties”. A personal declaration of 10% of travel was the compromise solution, which is completely arbitrary and entirely lacking in any transparency. People often say ministers are too busy to log their mileage carefully. They wouldn’t have to – the personal drivers that the taxpayer also pays for could do it for them.
  • TDs and Senators are getting reimbursed for 150 overnights in Dublin even though they are only obliged to sign in at Leinster House for 120 days. The 150 day allowance – currently paid at a rate of just over €98 per night – was designed to be based on the number of sitting days each year. However, there are far fewer sitting days than that with a final count of 118 days for the Dáil in 2015 and 105 for the Senate before both Houses broke for Christmas on Thursday.
  • Politicians are being allowed to claim special bonus rates of expenses on certain types of overseas travel. The top-ups can be worth up to 80% extra on top of the normal daily subsistence rates that apply to ordinary civil servants. Once again, these claims are unvouched and not dependent on actual expenditure. The Comptroller and Auditor General has twice raised concerns over the practice of paying them but nothing has been done.
  • Only a small number of TDs and Senators are having their expenses audited each year. Each audit has resulted in repayments of expenses claimed improperly. That has been presented as some kind of victory when in fact it means that 90% of expense claims are going entirely unchecked in the full knowledge that some inappropriate payments are being let through. To make matters worse, the receipts and invoices submitted by the unfortunate 10% selected for audit are not subject to Freedom of Information legislation. They can never be examined by members of the public or journalists. The Information Commissioner has recently decided that these are to be considered “private papers” of TDs and Senators. This was a far reaching decision effectively overturning one of the most important ever such victories for transparency – the original decision made that political expenses could not be considered private papers. However, new legislation and a wider definition of “private papers” in the new FOI Act 2014 saw this small victory lost. Only one small select group of people stand to benefit from this: they are the same people who are responsible for the legislation.
  • The entire system of allowances for travel and accommodation in Leinster House is unvouched and wide open to abuse. You can read about it here. Clear evidence already exists of its abuse by some politicians who have changed the route they travel to work to move into a higher band of payment (Sunday Times have reported extensively on this). In addition, many TDs and Senators from the same areas of the country are known to drive to Dublin together, thus cutting their travel expenses in half. They still get the full allowance. Many long-serving TDs and Senators own properties outright in Dublin having been in politics for decades and actually have no accommodation costs. They still get the full allowance. The system also pays TDs and Senators in Dublin (some of them living just a few miles from work) an untaxed sum of €9,000 or €5,250 each year for travel. And no, they don’t have to vouch for that either. Last but not least,  TDs and Senators, some of whom live extremely close to Dublin, are also getting these overnight allowances even though many of them will drive back home every evening. You can read about some of those cases here and here.
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