TDs and Senators who get their expenses audited find it “onerous” and “stressful” and struggle to gather all their receipts

UNFORTUNATE politicians who were randomly picked to have their generous expenses audited found the process “onerous” as well as “stressful”, according to Oireachtas records.

In feedback given to Leinster House on the audits, one Fine Gael TD Brendan Griffin also explained how he had been audited three times in the space of just six years.

Under current arrangements, politicians are paid a public representation allowance of between €12,000 and €20,000 annually separate to the travel expenses they get.

They are obliged to retain receipts and invoices, with 10 per cent of TDs and Senators subject to audit each year and repayment of money if problems are discovered.

Feedback gathered on last year’s audit reveals how some politicians are still struggling with the system six years after it was introduced.

Five members responded, with three of them saying their biggest problem was “the production of documentary evidence for the audit, notably in relation to advertising”.

Another said there were gaps in their understanding of what type of spending was allowed, when compared to the opinion of the auditor.

One TD (or Senator) said they had particular problems in getting receipts and invoices from a service provider, who was not responding to queries.

Of the five who responded, two of them described the process as “onerous” and “stressful/difficult” because of the workload involved in gathering invoices and receipts.

The other three said they found the process straightforward, including Brendan Griffin who by that stage had plenty of experience following his third audit.

The guidelines for TDs and Senators have yet again had to be revised to bring further clarity over what can and cannot be claimed.

The changes were made following the latest audit and include an increase in the amount politicians can claim from their home phone bills.

“Members have requested that the proportion of home telephone bills allowable … is increased from its current level of 10%. It is proposed that the amount be increased to 20%,” a briefing document said.

Also added was clarification that ministers and ministers of state are allowed claim “€100 unvouched expenditure” each month.

This money available for petty cash to all politicians remains available despite repeated claims from the Oireachtas and several ministers that the expenses system is fully vouched.

Other changes allowed an extension on time for payments and that politicians had to provide rental agreements for constituency offices.

The documents also detailed exactly how the system has worked with 10% of members randomly chosen using a “software tool”.

They are then invited to a briefing with Mazars, the accountancy firm responsible for the audit, and given a talk on what to expect.

Staff in the Oireachtas are also made available to “assist in clarifications” with separate seminars and “one to one” meetings also provided for confused TDs and Senators.

It was also confirmed that Mazars would carry out the audit for another year.

A briefing document explained: “The Mazars independent auditor has been involved in the audit process since its inception in 2011. He brings a huge level of knowledge and nuanced understanding of the issues that members encounter.

“He has used this knowledge to ensure that the audit process is as straightforward as possible, but at all times maintaining the requirements of that process. The process is thorough but necessarily so.”

The audit system was introduced in the aftermath of the expenses controversy that led to the resignation of then Ceann Comhairle John O’Donoghue in 2009.

However, it has proven even less transparent than the previous system and attempts to get access to the invoices and receipts provided for audit have been frustrated on the basis they are the “private papers” of politicians.

Under the new rules of expenses, 101 separate audits have taken place over the past six years — with 22 in each of the last three years. For the first three years, just over ten were chosen annually for checking.

Twelve TDs or Senators have been audited on two occasions, while only Brendan Griffin has been unlucky enough to be selected three times.

In a statement, the Oireachtas said that only two of the five members who provided feedback had described the process as difficult.

This was “in the context of the workload associated with the preparation of documentation by a small number of staff,” they said.

“The issue of updated guidelines is not a new concept and they are normally issued post audit … the rationale in updating guidelines as the need arises is to provide clarification for members on what is allowable and thereby minimise potential queries.”

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