In the early days of this blog we covered Oireachtas members’ expenses quite a bit. Using documents we’d FOId we calculated the average weekly, daily and hourly claims the top three ‘spenders’ were making. The Sunday Tribune published a double-page spread using the documents, and the Daily Mail mentioned the calculations. It made a bit of an impact.
Mark had promised to publish the same figures for an average TD but, unfortunately never got around to it. Life was hectic, it was simply too time consuming to lay out a spreadsheet in the same way with details for each person who has served in the Oireachtas since 2005. Of course things would have been easier had the Oireachtas sent us the documents in electronic format, as requested… but that’s a blog post for another day.
At the time there was lots of hand-wringing about expenses, Ken Foxe – may the country thank him – was in full flight with his prolonged FOI campaign on the topic, John O’Donoghue’s expenses in particular. Other journos were gradually climbing onto the bandwagon and the Government for various reasons, expenses not least among them, was looking shaky.
There was much talk of “fully vouched”, “transparency”, and “openness”.
This week a revised expenses system was introduced, billed as reform.
It’s disappointing. The Oireachtas members – on all sides – have missed the point. Read the proposal and you’ll see it is focused on numbers. Instead of nine or ten headings under which expenses/allowances can be claimed, there’ll be two. They’ll be able to claim a travel and accommodation allowance and a public representation allowance.
The T&A allowance is the one that’ll be based on members signing into the Houses of the Oireachtas and the distance from their contituency which they must travel to get to the same location.
Despite the aforementioned talk of “fully vouched” and “transparent” systems, Dublin TDs will get €12,000 completely unvouched under this allowance. The figure will increase in stages relevant to distance from the Dáil to the point where representatives of Kerry and Donegal, and other more peripheral locations, will get up to €37,850 without having to show a shred of documentation. Even senators from the more distant-to-Dublin areas will get up to €32,850.
For the record: the average industrial wage in 2009 was €32,000.
Full payment of this allowance will be based, strangely, on 80 percent attendence at Leinster House on days the House is sitting. Whether a member will have to take his or her seat in the Dáil or Seanad to receive payment is unclear. For each day a member misses after dropping below 80 percent the member will lose 1 percent of the allowance. It’s, again, not completely clear, but it appears this payment is to be caluclated monthly.
Bizarrely, days when a member is off sick or abroad on parliamentary duties will not count against their 80 percent. So when the member couldn’t possibly be incurring T&A expenses – or will be claiming expenses from departments or Government bodies who they’re traveling with – they will still be, in a way, claiming from the Oireachtas account.
The public representation allowance is a merging of many other headings also. TDs will be able to claim up to €15,000 completely unvouched or €25,000 vouched. It’s not clear if members claiming more than €15,000 will have to vouch all their expenses or just the €10,000 after they go over the €15,000 threshold.
Nobody knows if the block payments will be taxed or not, yet. If they’re untaxed then I believe Revenue would have to be told to put a special exemption for politicians into their system, as nobody else gets untaxed expenses. I wouldn’t be surprised if this happened.
The Oireachtas has focused on figures not transparency. We still won’t know where our tax money will go. It’s a cheaper system (or, according the Oireachtas spokesman, cost neutral at least) but not a reformed more transparent or open system.
If TheStory was minister for finance and asked to consider such a system we would say something like…
The Oireachtas Commission have come up with a proposal that I should combine all expenses into one monthly block grant to deputies which would be unvouched; it would simply be based on the distance the deputy has to travel from the seat of our parliament in Dublin. I’ve looked at this proposal and I’m not happy with it. I think we need far more verification of expenses. I discussed the issue with my own parliamentary party last evening and they’re in full agreement with me that expenses must be verifiable. We can’t have an arrangement of an unvouched block grant for deputies and I wouldn’t be comfortable signing off as minister on that as a genuine reform of the system.
Look, politicians have genuine expenses they do maintain offices, they do have to use telephones. We know that, that should be covered, these are legitimate expenses. And I’m quite prepared to ensure that a system is put in place to ensure that those genuine expenses are met. But we can’t have a system that allows any inference be drawn that expenses are being pocketed for personal profit. I’m not suggesting that that’s happening, but I’m suggesting that any system should ensure that that perception is not there.
I’m simply not prepared to sign off on a proposal that provides that a blanket sum is handed out irrespective of whether the sum has been incurred or not.
I’m not prepared to sign-off on a system that simply provides for an unvouched block grant based on distance from the capital.
“But are we talking verified as opposed to vouched?” You may ask of Minister for Finance, TheStory… and we’d tell you…
Some elements will have to be vouched. For example the telephones are an obvious case. At present there’s an unvouched telephone allowance, I see no reason why that would not be vouched.
In fact, that’s exactly what the actual minister for finance, Brian Lenihan, said on the News At One on October 7 2009.
Lenihan has, in essence, signed off on the system he said he wouldn’t sign off on.
Still, none of the expenses are fully vouched. The system is not “fully verifiable”. It’s a joke.
The method of verification by attendance for one of the payment appears open to ‘working’. Block grants will be paid, and the inference that expenses are being pocketed for personal profit will still be made.
Trust can’t be developed unless the Oireachtas members stop hiding basic details of their expenses.
The new system is not reform, it’s a re-jig.