I started the process of gaining a full picture of how much the houses of the Oireachtas cost the taxpayer some five months ago. I’m still working on it.
It is no easy task. For anyone who is interested in the practicalities of the FOI process, read on.
Three FOI requests have been submitted. One appeal for internal review has been submitted, and granted successfully. Thus far the process has cost €120 (despite an original quote of nearly €2,500). Despite seeking all the records in a digital spreadsheet format, I have almost always been given bulky physical hard copies, or scans thereof. And even when I do get digital formats, I have been given scans of printouts from digital spreadsheets. This makes the job of digitising the data far more time consuming and difficult.
As of now I am waiting on expenses data for 2000 and 1999, which I expect to receive in hard copy, and not even in table form. This will mean a huge amount of manual effort to tabulate the data. The Oireachtas also sought an extension on releasing this data. After that it’s 1998 data. And a huge effort to tabulate it correctly so we can understand how much our representatives cost us.
But a number of things have emerged during the process. Hold onto your hats.
As I blogged before, my original request for 2002/2001 expenses data was refused under Section 10 (1) (c) of the Act – that “in the opinion of the head, granting the request would, by reason of the number or nature of the records concerned or the nature of the information concerned, require the retrieval and examination of such number of records or an examination of such kind of the records concerned as to cause a substantial and unreasonable interference with or disruption of the other work of the public body concerned”. I immediately appealed this for internal review. Two weeks later my review was successful and is it turned out, part of the expenses record was missing:
“I am refusing access to the records for 2001 and 2002 in relation to the expenses
claimed from the Grants-in-aid in respect of inter-parliamentary activities and the
British Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body as it has not been possible to find the records in
question – which would have been created in hard copy format only. These records
are outside of the main electronic accounting system for the office so details of claims
paid are not available through this system. I should point out there is a general rule
that permits the destruction of records, particularly hard copy records, relating to the
accounts for a particular year once those accounts have been audited by the
Comptroller and Auditor General and reported on by the Committee of Public
Accounts. This process would generally conclude within 2/3 years of the end of a
particular accounting year.
Fine, we can get over that. I have sought an explanation from the Oireachtas, and it is pending. But something else has also emerged, which perhaps I should have known, but failed to notice. There is a whole other set of data related to how much our TDs and Senators spend, that is not included in the expenses system. This is the system of costs.
When TDs travel under Irish Parliamentary Association or other committee travel or parliamentary travel, they do not necessarily go through the expenses system. In other words not everything is claimed. And since I only sought “expenses” details, that is all I was provided with. Letter of the law, and all that jazz. But in the costs system, the Oireachtas pay up front for certain things, without a TD claiming for them. This skews the figures just a tad.
For example, it throws British Irish Parliamentary Association TD data for 2007 out by some €16,000. That’s €16k more than I thought on the basis of expenses data. Other figures are bigger. And I am not including the costs of sending anonymous (so far, anyway) civil servants with TDs on such trips, be it to Mexico, Oxfordshire or other far flung places.
So the process of getting a full picture, at least for 2005 to 2009, is going to be a while yet.