Right to Know brings High Court challenge to increase transparency around lobbying

* Quick update on this case. It had been due to start today but has now been postponed until mid-July. We will keep you posted.

The High Court will begin hearing a challenge on February 14 brought by Right to Know against a decision of the Commissioner for Environmental Information to refuse access to an IBEC submission to the Minister for Transport outlining the business lobbyist’s priorities for transport investment and renewable energy measures.

The submission, which was disclosed on the lobbying register, was aimed at convincing Minister Shane Ross to increase transport investment, upgrade road infrastructure, invest in renewable fuel infrastructure, and improve commuter access to Dublin Airport.

In March 2017, Right to Know made a request to the Minister for Transport for a copy of the submission under the Access to Information on the Environment Regulations. The request was ultimately refused and this decision was affirmed by the Commissioner for Environmental Information who said that the submission didn’t contain any substantive content on the transport measures at issue and therefore wasn’t accessible under environmental transparency legislation.

Right to Know brings this challenge because lobbying is an activity which by definition is designed to affect the environment, in this case by increasing investment in transport including road upgrades. In its challenge, it argues that the Commissioner applied the wrong legal test and took too narrow a view of the scope of information that could be accessed by the public.

Gavin Sheridan, managing director of Right to Know, said: “A submission on transport policy by Ireland’s most powerful lobby group is clearly information that the public should have access to. When big business tells a minister their priorities in environmental matters, the public has a right to see what those priorities are.

“It is not for the Commissioner to restrict the information that can be accessed about environmental lobbying. The law says that any information on an activity intended to affect the environment should be accessible to the public irrespective of its content. Often, it is as much about what is not said. For example, the public has a right to know if they agree with IBEC’s priorities. Does IBEC list walking and cycling on its priority list? Are the priorities focussed on road transport or other unsustainable measures? There are strong public interest reasons to have the widest possible transparency over lobbying on environmental matters.”

Mr Sheridan added: “The Commissioner for Environmental Information cannot second-guess how the public will interpret lobbying submissions. His job is to check whether the lobbying can affect the environment. If it can, then he has to ensure the greatest possible transparency in respect of that lobbying.”

Right to Know is taking this challenge in the public interest to make sure that the public has the widest possible access to environmental information. Right to Know is represented by FP Logue Solicitors and barrister David Browne BL.

You can read the original decision here: https://www.ocei.ie/decisions/right-to-know-clg-and-the/

Government claimed ending citizenship rights for Irish-born children was needed because of fears over international terrorism

THE government claimed to be under pressure to curb citizenship rights for Irish-born children because of concerns over international terrorism, newly released Cabinet records have revealed.

In 2004, the government held a referendum to end automatic citizenship rights to anyone born in Ireland, a decision that has grown increasingly controversial in recent months.

Cabinet records from the time now explain the precise thinking behind the referendum with the Department of Justice saying it would ease “strains” on hospitals and improve availability of services for “legal residents”.

A secret nine-page memorandum for government said granting citizenship to anybody born in Ireland irrespective of where their parents came from was “unique in the European Union, and unusual world-wide”.

It said it made Ireland an “attractive target destination” for anybody looking for residency in the EU.

The memorandum – released following an FOI request – also said that in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, Ireland’s law on citizenship for Irish-born kids were a major risk.

It said: “There are serious concerns that Ireland’s unique situation among EU member states in regard to citizenship could have serious implications for the integrity of our own immigration controls and for national and international security.

“[This] could make Ireland a target destination for those wishing, for whatever reason, to secure residence within the EU.”

In one section, the memo said the Department wanted to “eliminate” the attractiveness of Ireland for migrants.

It said that becoming a parent of an Irish-born child attracts “greater entitlements” than anywhere else in the European Union.

“This will inevitably remain an attraction for non-nationals to come to Ireland to give birth, placing strains on our hospital services, attracting illegal immigration and creating long-term commitments for the State,” it said.

“The Minister [it was then Michael McDowell] is of the view that this attraction must now be eliminated.”

The secret memorandum said that the issue would be better dealt with by a referendum and that any costs involved in holding a national vote were dwarfed by the money being spent on the asylum system.

It said: “The Minister is aware of the huge annual expenditure, currently over €340m, committed by the State to processing of asylum claims and the maintenance of asylum seekers in the State.

“He is especially concerned at the ongoing costs across the State system and in particular, the continuing impact on the health sector.”

The document said pressures were particularly acute in maternity hospitals from people arriving late in pregnancy and that there would be savings in the “short, medium and long term”.

As part of the decision making process, the memorandum had to address what impact would be had on women, employment, cross-border relations, and people in poverty.

It said there had been claims that “non-national women” were being pressurised to give birth in Ireland and that the changes could “alleviate that situation”.

The memo said the change would have no impact on employment and that it could actually help people in poverty.

“The effect of these proposals will reduce the attraction for illegal migration and thereby reduce the number of non-nationals benefiting from State services including accommodation and health services,” it said.

“This will release resources and improve the availability of services to legal residents in the State.”

The referendum has come into renewed focus over recent months as some of the children born in Ireland around the time have faced deportation.

In one high-profile case, Eric Zhi Ying Xue – a nine-year-old from Bray, Co Wicklow – faced removal from the state despite having been here for his entire life.

His case was taken on by Health Minister Simon Harris who said: “The idea that a nine-year-old boy who is as much from Wicklow as I am … would be told that he is ‘going back’ to China, a country he had never been to, was simply ludicrous.”

Asked whether they were considering an amnesty for any of those affected by the citizenship referendum, the Department of Justice said that the EU had said cases would be dealt with on a case-by-case approach as opposed to any “mass regularisation”.

They said that after the 2004 referendum, an Irish Born Child Scheme had been established that allowed 17,000 people to regularise their status in Ireland, based on being parent of an Irish-born child.

They said: “Since 2010, approximately 27,000 children have been granted Irish citizenship through the naturalisation process, the vast majority of whom were born to non-EEA nationals.”

Budget Submissions: doubling betting tax, leaving alcohol untouched, a possible reprieve for smokers, and closing an inheritance tax loophole

A selection of submissions for Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe ahead of Budget 2018:

Among the most interesting parts:

* The minister was told the “opportune time” had arrived to double betting tax amid ongoing pressure to increase tax on gambling.

Mr Donohoe doubled the rate from one to two percent in this year’s budget and was afterwards met with fierce opposition from the bookmaking industry.

His officials had warned that alternative proposals to tax punters directly or the profits of bookmakers would not be possible this year.

* Minister Donohoe also considered giving a reprieve to smokers in the Budget after seven consecutive years of excise duty increase.

Asked for his views on a tax rise for tobacco, the minister had written: “Not currently minded to implement a further increase.”

However, cigarettes did ultimately take another hit in Budget 2019 with a 50 cent rise in the price of a box of twenty cigarettes and similar rises for other tobacco products.

* For alcohol products, Minister Donohoe heeded the advice of officials who warned Brexit and cross-border shopping could counteract any tax increase.

“I am currently minded to make no changes,” said the minister. “Will review in final days before Budget.”

Officials said there was now a “significant price differential” between how much was paid for booze in Dublin and offers available north of the border in Newry.

* The Department of Finance were forced to play whack-a-mole with wealthy tax avoiders after a new scheme for dodging inheritance tax was uncovered.

Two years ago, the Department shut down a loophole where high-wealth individuals used an exemption to transfer properties tax-free to their children.

However, the Revenue Commissioners have now discovered that a new system was being used for inheriting valuable houses without having to pay any tax.

Those involved used what are known as ‘discretionary trusts’, a system usually set up to manage a person’s assets on behalf of their children.

You can read more in the documents themselves:

Department of Finance feared publishing even anonymous list of ministerial pensions amid concerns over data breach

THE Department of Finance was worried it couldn’t even publish an anonymised list of pensions for former ministers and officeholders because it would be too easy to identify them.

Each year, the Department had printed a list of former taoisigh, ministers, presidents, along with other ex-officeholders and how much they received in their annual pension.

However, the 2017 list was never published due to concerns over data protection and that even an anonymous list could create a breach.

Internal emails reveal how concerns were first raised early in the summer after their ongoing publication was raised at a GDPR meeting.

The pension details always “attract great media interest”, one email said.

“At a recent GDPR course it was suggested that we shouldn’t actually be doing this as we would be releasing the name and gross amount paid and in breach of GDPR,” wrote an official.

Consideration was given to whether some other form of publishing, either anonymously or in aggregate for groups like former Taoisigh, ministers, presidents, or other officeholders.

In a later email, the Department of Finance data protection officer Colm O’Neill said: “Appreciate if we could have a chat about this publication given that it identifies individuals – I’m not aware of any legal basis for processing this personal data.

“Even if the names of the individuals were anonymised, it wouldn’t be that difficult to identify the former office holders if compared with last year’s publication.”

Mr O’Neill said that the Department of Finance were not even the controller of the pension data and were taking it from their sister department the Department of Public Expenditure.

Discussion between officials also raised the possibility that figures for previous years – which remain on the department website – might have to be deleted too.

In one email, an official said: “My initial view would be that unless someone can identify a lawful basis to publish the data, it shouldn’t be published and anything up already should be removed.”

In later correspondence, the Department said that the introduction of GDPR [the General Data Protection Regulations] in May had changed things dramatically.

“What applied before 25 May and what applies now are two very different things,” said an email.

As the deadline for publishing the Department’s Finance Accounts for 2017 approached in late July, the Department were still unsure what to do about the pension figures.

However, on July 27, it was confirmed that the figures – which had been available online dating back to 2009 – would not be made public.

An email said the information constituted “personal data” and that the ex-politicians and officeholders involved should not be made identifiable in this way.

A message from Helen Codd, the data protection officer of the Department of Public Expenditure, said their legal advice was that publication had to be halted.

“I … would appreciate if the practice of issuing this material with the Finance Accounts as a matter of routine ceases with immediate effect,” she wrote.

The email explained that if the material was subsequently sought under FOI, it would be dealt with “appropriately at that time”.

In a statement, the Department of Public Expenditure said: “Due to the implementation of the General Data Protection Regulations it is our view that the data referenced … [can] no longer be published.”

The Department of Finance said the pension figures were not held by them and it was not for them to release.

Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe had intended to increase carbon tax by €10 in Budget 2019 but “Brexit effect” changed his mind

FINANCE Minister Paschal Donohoe was on the verge of sanctioning a €10 increase in carbon tax only for a later change of mind, departmental documents show.

A pre-budget submission for Mr Donohoe prepared by his officials reveal that the minister had been preparing to sign off on the tax hike in advance of Budget 2019.

However, the increase never went ahead amid fears over Brexit and how higher costs would impact on people who did not have options to choose renewable or cleaner energy sources.

A copy of the submission includes a note from Mr Donohoe, who wrote: “I am currently minded to implement a €10 increase on Budget Day.”

The €10 increase would have raised around €210 million in Exchequer funding had it proceeded according to the document.

In an executive summary, civil servants told Mr Donohoe that increasing the tax rate would support climate change policy and “send a signal” to the public about government policy.

“In order to meet climate change targets, which currently appears difficult,” it said, “there have been calls for a long term strategy to increase the carbon tax rate to €80 (per tonne CO2) by 2030. The current rate of €20 has been in place since 2012.”

The submission warned that the increase might “disproportionately” hit low income households who were already at risk of fuel poverty.

It also said that businesses with particularly large energy spends would also be hit.

To try and minimise the impact, it was suggested that the Department could increase the rate paid as part of the National Fuel Scheme, an allowance paid for fuel purchases for social welfare recipients and others.

Separately, changes to the diesel rebate scheme could also be used to reduce the impact on hauliers and bus operators.

The submission painted a bleak picture of how Ireland was doing in meeting its climate change targets saying that emissions had actually increased in a number of areas in recent years, including transport and residential homes.

However, it said even advocates for carbon tax accepted that increases could hurt households that were most at risk of “fuel poverty”.

“Households dependent on more carbon intensive fuels such as oil and solid fuels are more likely to experience fuel poverty,” it said.

The submission also said there were “cross border” risks associated with increasing carbon tax particularly if the UK did not follow suit or “sterling continues to weaken”.

It said that so-called “fuel tourism” where motorists cross the border to buy petrol and diesel was a double-edged sword. While one study found drivers from Northern Ireland had helped generate €230 million in transport taxes in the south, this had added 2% to the Republic’s annual greenhouse gas emission levels.

Fuel prices were more or less the same on both sides of the border at the time of the submission.

A greater problem was that significantly higher taxes on solid fuels in the South meant that there was ongoing problems with the “illicit sale of solid fuels”.

“This includes high sulphur coal, which is damaging to public health, jeopardises legitimate business in the South as well as depriving the Exchequer of Revenue,” it said.

The submission also explained how the impact of increased carbon tax would have dramatically different impacts on different households.

This would depend on the BER rating of homes, whether they were on the gas network, and the availability of public transport with rural areas much more likely to be hit hard.

In a statement, the Department said that Brexit had been a key factor in the minister’s change of heart on increasing carbon tax in the budget.

They said: “While some households are in a good positon to reduce their carbon footprints, others may not have such choices available to them, at least not yet.

“Ireland has relatively high fuel tax rates in OECD terms. At current prices, total fuel taxes (including the NORA [oil reserve] levy) is about 60 percent of the retail price on a litre of petrol and 54 percent on a litre of diesel.”

The Department also said fuel prices had increased significantly over the past year, with diesel and petrol prices both up by over 10 percent.

Department of Finance wanted to introduce new special 30% flat tax rate for executives from multinational companies

THE government considered a special tax regime that could have allowed thousands of highly paid executives in large multinational companies to pay a flat rate of just 30% in the tax.

The plan – which was designed to be one of the most generous tax incentives in Europe – was abandoned however, following advice from the Attorney General.

Legal advice given to the Department of Finance suggested the regime could fall foul of European Union rules on state aid.

Full details of the proposed regime have not been made public before with the Department saying the idea had come about as the result of a “brainstorming” session.

The scheme would have created a large group of people who would have operated in an entirely separate tax system to the rest of the country for up to five years each.

Details of it explain how it could apply to up to five percent of a company’s workforce in return for their employer creating ten jobs per beneficiary.

An internal submission said: “The assignee would have paid either a flat rate of tax of 30% or an effective rate of tax of 30% on salary in excess of €75,000.

“There would have been no upper salary limit. A maximum of 5% of a company workforce could avail of the relief.”

The Department said it would have been managed and overseen by the IDA while the Revenue Commissioners would look after the granting and administration of the tax relief.

The submission said this scheme was the “preference” of the Department of Finance but that this had been scuppered following discussions with the Attorney General.

“Advice was received that the new proposal has the potential to raise state aid issues,” the submission said.

“The proposed requirement to include IDA certification of the jobs created after three years and the mandatory nature of the requirement for job creation could result in the scheme being considered State Aid rather than as a taxation measure.”

The scheme was proposed ahead of Budget 2015 as part of a review of a separate incentive scheme known as SARP, or the special assigned relief programme.

SARP is a smaller-scale scheme that allows for 30% of income earned above €75,000 to be exempt from tax along with tax-free allowances for school fees and one trip home a year.

A cap on the scheme has just been introduced by the Department of Finance after the amount claimed under it doubled in the space of a year even while the number of jobs it created stalled.

This year’s ministerial submission explaining in detail why removal of the cap was needed has been withheld under FOI by the Department.

They said its release would be “contrary to the public interest” before the Finance Bill was enacted.

The earlier submission on the SARP scheme explains why the relief was originally extended and the cap on earnings removed.

It said that because of international moves to curb tax avoidance schemes (including the notorious ‘double Irish’), Ireland needed a generous scheme so as to stay competitive in encouraging foreign direct investment.

The scheme had until then proven something of a “deadweight” and was considered to be “of limited value in its current form”.

Instead, the submission said it should be expanded so that a €500,000 upper threshold on salary was removed, rules on tax residency changed, and beneficiaries allowed to work in Ireland and overseas at the same time.

It explained how a person on €800,000-a-year would have an effective tax rate of 40.1 percent instead of 46.6 percent.

It also claimed that “very few (if any)” individuals involved in the scheme would be paid a salary in excess of €1 million.

However, this prediction proved inaccurate and eighteen people earning annual wages of between €1 million and €10 million were on the scheme in 2016.

The submission warned too that any extension of the measure was not going to be universally popular.

“While any extension/enhancement of the scheme is likely to raise opposition in some quarters, we believe it can be justified in terms of helping to improve Ireland’s overall competitiveness,” it said.

A spokesman for the Department of Finance said that the abandoned 30% scheme was “one of a number of proposals that were looked at the initial consideration stage [brainstorming]”.

“This occurs when any new taxation measure is considered by officials who will always provide various options for consideration for senior management [or the] minister. The decision was taken that this particular option would not form part of the scheme.”

Should we call him “your holiness” or “Pope Francis”? Internal emails reveal careful orchestration of Zappone meeting on papal visit

CHILDREN’S Minister Katherine Zappone was advised to get an Italian translation of “Is that a yes Pope Francis?” before presenting him with a letter about the Tuam Mother and Baby Home.

The Department also debated whether to refer to the Pontiff as Pope Francis or to use a more formal title like “your holiness” or “most holy father” in correspondence.

During the Papal visit in August, Ms Zappone had handed over a letter asking for reparations from the Vatican towards the excavation of the Tuam site and a suitable memorial.

Emails released by the Department reveal how the thirty-second meeting between the minister and the Pope had been carefully orchestrated in advance by Ms Zappone and her advisers.

One of her special advisers Patricia Ryan explained how they were “going to the top”.

“I think there is nothing to lose by asking him a direct question,” Ms Ryan said. “He may or may not offer a response. Even raising it with him is meaningful. It will, no doubt, be the first time that it has been raised with him.”

Minister Katherine Zappone wondered in an email whether it was “practical” to seek a direct response from Pope Francis on the Tuam scandal.

“Will that get us what we want?” she asked. “What is role of [the] Dublin Archbishop? Or, are we looking to make a more symbolic statement.”

In an earlier email, adviser Patricia Ryan said their key message would be that the church “step up to the plate”.

“Looking for a commitment on a course of action that has not yet been sanctioned by government will be risky,” she warned.

Ms Ryan also said that Minister Zappone should leave herself “room for manoeuvre” while still sending a strong message to the Pope.

Patricia Ryan drafted a short speaking note that the minister would say to the Pope when handing over her letter seeking reparations.

Ms Ryan said: “Presumably he will respond in the positive and this then opens the way for us to engage with the church at the highest level?”

She also said it would be worthwhile to get a translation for asking Pope Francis directly if he was agreeing to provide compensation if there was any confusion over his response.

In earlier emails, the minister’s press adviser Jerry O’Connor said that asking for a channel of communication to be opened was “perhaps about as far as you could go”.

He said: “To have the door opened – whether it ends [up] being through a Cardinal, the Archbishop or [Papal] Nuncio – would be a big success and allow for further more detailed engagement. It is the best possible outcome we could hope for from this very short engagement.”

Mr O’Connor also suggested it may not be appropriate to start the letter by saying “Dear Pope Francis”.

He suggested instead the use of either “Your Holiness” or “Most Holy Father” – which were “recommended for a non-Catholic when writing to the Pope”.

Minister Zappone was not fully convinced however. She responded: “May I sleep on this? I prefer dear pope Francis.”

In the end, they went with the minister’s preference of Pope Francis as internal discussions took place over whether the letter would actually be made public.

Her press adviser Jerry O’Connor said: “We also need to discuss together if and when we will be putting remarks in public domain.”

Asked for comment, a spokesman for the minister said they had nothing to add to the contents of the internal correspondence, which was released following an FOI request.

Internal IDA documents raise multinational concerns over “clear market failures” and “constraints” in Irish residential property market

THE IDA prepared a series of briefing documents for their executives after multinational companies raised concerns over “constraints” and “clear market failures” in the residential property market.

Executives from the IDA were advised to say that the country’s housing shortage was “not unique to Ireland” in the guidance documents.

The investment agency prepared a series of briefings for staff on what to say when issues around rising property prices, spiralling rents, and homelessness came up for discussion.

Copies of the briefings reveal that the IDA prepared data showing that monthly rents in Dublin were still competitive by international standards.

According to the latest briefing report from September, the price for a small “one person apartment” in Dublin came in at just above €1,000 per month.

Taking figures from the Nestpick ‘Furnished Apartment Index’, this meant Dublin was almost half the price of San Francisco, and significantly less than other major investment centres including New York, Hong Kong, and London.

The briefings also emphasised that rent prices in regional locations in Ireland were “very competitive”.

While the standardised average rent in Dublin was stated to be €1,436-per-month – the average rents in Cork and Galway were just over €1,000 while in Waterford, it was €674, according to the records.

For property purchases, the briefing said that average residential prices in Dublin – at just over €400,000 – were “competitive compared to competing larger cities”.

Average property prices were at least 50% higher in Paris, Zurich, and Geneva, according to the documents prepared by the IDA.

Ireland did not compare so well to cities like Milan, Prague, and Frankfurt however.

“Regional cities compare exceptionally well to other competing cities,” the briefing said with average prices in Cork and Galway below €200,000 according to their charts.

The briefing also said there were “hugely positive trends” in the residential property market.

It said that first-time buyers in Ireland were in a much better financial situation now than they were at the height of the boom.

“The average first-time buyer working couple uses 21.2% of their net income to fund a mortgage in Ireland – this was 32% in 2007,” the briefing explained.

The briefing also boasted that new home completions had reached 16,274 units over the past twelve months, an increase of 256% when compared to 2013.

Later on in the document, it was pointed out that 2013 had been the “bottom” when just 8,300 homes were completed, and that this had fallen from 77,600 at the start of the recession.

The “key messages” document also said the government had introduced rent pressure zones and was “committed to meeting the demand” for new housing.

The briefings are based on a series of quarterly housing reports that were commissioned by the IDA from the estate agent Lisney.

The reports – which will cost €24,000 over a two-year period – were started specifically because of concerns from large companies about the Irish property market, according to documents obtained under FOI.

One internal record from March this year explained in stark terms why they had been commissioned.

It said: “Due to the current constraints in the residential property market and clear market failures, a number of multinational companies currently in Ireland have indicated to IDA that property and most notably residential property is one factor challenging increased investment in a number of locations throughout Ireland.”

In a statement, the IDA said the briefing documents were prepared to inform executives about housing conditions across Ireland and provide international comparisons.

They said: “Our clients operate in an international context and it is IDA Ireland’s role to consider how we compare to our competitors.

“IDA Ireland’s clients take a long-term view on investment and are continuing to invest in large numbers in Dublin, as evidenced by some of the large announcements made this year.”

They said they believed Ireland’s housing market remained competitive and that it competes with cities like San Francisco, Zurich, London, and New York for foreign direct investment.

Eighty retiring HSE consultants and staff qualified for lump sum pension payments of at least €160,000 over past three years – seven got more than €300,000

SEVEN former HSE consultants and staff have received lump sum retirement pay-outs of more than €300,000 over the past three years.

The enormous golden handshakes are part of close to €19 million in lump sums paid to high-earning former consultants and senior officials from the health service since 2016.

Altogether, 80 former HSE staff qualified for payoffs worth at least €160,000 during the last three years, with the average payment working out at €237,000.

Forty six of them got lump sums worth between €200,000 and €300,000, according to figures obtained following an FOI request.

The single highest earning pensioner – who retired in 2017 – was given €357,738 in a lump sum payment and is now in receipt of an annual pension worth €119,246, according to the figures.

The information was released by the HSE in heavily anonymised format, listing how much is being paid but not the identity or job title of those who received the money.

A second person who retired earlier this year was given a €356,981 lump sum payment and their annual pension is worth €118,993.

The third highest earner got a payoff of just over €350,000 and will get €116,823 each year for the rest of their lives.

Altogether, six retired HSE staff will be entitled to life-time pensions worth at least €100,000 annually after finishing work with the health service since the beginning of 2016.

The current cost of yearly pensions for the eighty recently-retired pensioners is just over €6 million, assuming none have died in the meantime.

Some of those listed with comparatively smaller annual pensions still managed to get very hefty lump sums.

In one instance, a former staff member was given €195,372 in a payoff even though their pension entitlement is listed as €47,047-a-year.

The cost of paying pensions for ex-health service staff was around €880 million last year from an overall budget of around €14 billion. It is expected the pension bill could rise to €1 billion by 2020.

Finance expert Catriona Ceitin, who was the first to reveal the extent of pension payments for former FÁS boss Roddy Molloy, said: “As these pensions are based on final salary, often the amount paid during retirement can exceed the salaries received during the entire working life, this is even more prevalent where large salary increases have been granted close to retirement.

“The personal contributions paid during the working life do not represent the value of the pensions and lump sums received,” she said.

The level of lump sum pay-out in the HSE has at least fallen in recent years with one retired employee from 2011 receiving €414,910 and an annual pension of €138,303.

The lump sums in the HSE are far higher than those paid out to ordinary civil servants working in government departments and other public bodies.

In a list of the highest pensions from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform released under FOI, the single largest lump sum paid was €298,708.

That was paid to a senior retiring civil servant in 2017, along with an annual pension for life of €107,795, according to the records.

The Department said their figures covered almost all civil servants, except those employed by the Houses of the Oireachtas and a handful of other public bodies.

Altogether, €11 million in golden handshakes were shared by 75 different ex-civil servants, with each receiving an average of just over €146,000 each.

Thirty six of them got at least €200,000 each while nine are in receipt of annual pensions worth in excess of €90,000 every year.

The Department said that the figures provided did not however, reflect “abatement” where former civil servants were taken on again to work in the public sector.

When that happens, the combined pension and pay for the new role cannot exceed what the person was earning prior to retirement.

In a statement, the HSE said these final salary pensions were calculated based on years of service, the final salary, and the best three years of consecutive pensionable allowances.

“In general, these schemes cover employees who were employed on or before [1 January 2013],” they said. Those employed since then are part of the far less generous single public service pension scheme.

The HSE said: “The introduction of the [single scheme] … is a step towards managing the public service pensions bill since it is a career average scheme rather than a final salary scheme which will ultimately lead to a reduction in benefits payable.”

Additional contributions and increased pension ages will also help cut the annual pension bill, they said.

Cork’s former mayor Tony Fitzgerald and the €2,750 taxpayer-funded trip to Rome for “audience” with Pope Francis

THE former Lord Mayor of Cork flew to Rome for a “Papal audience” on a trip funded by the taxpayer earlier this year.

Fianna Fáil’s Tony Fitzgerald travelled with his wife Georgina to the Eternal City to meet with Pope Francis where they gifted the Pontiff a book of photography of Cork City and a “personal present” of hand-carved candleholders.

The meeting with the Pope was arranged through the Cork and Ross Diocesan Office, according to Cork City Council.

The two-night trip – on which the city council’s chief executive Ann Doherty also travelled – ended up costing the council €1,963 in flights and accommodation, according to records.

This included €777 for three return flights to Rome and €1,186 for two rooms for two nights at the four-star Michelangelo in the Italian capital.

The hotel – with its “cosmopolitan style, classical grandeur, and timeless appeal” – is just a short stroll from the Vatican and St Peter’s Square.

Also paid for was a €273 bill for an official dinner at the Ristorante The Dome and a €433 subsistence claim by the mayor, according to records released by the council.

Mr Fitzgerald said the trip was one of several he had taken during his mayoralty as part of his efforts to represent the city “locally, nationally, and internationally”.

He said: “My year was focused on supporting and visiting local communities, charity events, companies and groups, communities that support foreign direct investment, meeting our President, Taoiseach, Ministers, Ambassadors, Heads of State, Lord Mayors, Mayors, Royal Family – promoting Cork as a place to visit and live … and work.

“Visiting Rome and meeting Pope Francis and those at the Irish College was an example of that. As required, the trip was approved by council retrospectively on the 14th May without any issue being made by the members … and without any issue being raised.”

The Rome trip ended up being scaled back, first because of a strike by air traffic controllers and later because of severe weather, according to council records.

On May 9, the mayor was greeted at the Vatican by Monsignor John Kennedy before a ceremony and an “engagement with Pope Francis, including exchange of gifts”.

Mr Fitzgerald visited the Irish College then where he met students from Cork, Irish ex-pats, and Monsignor Joe Murphy, head of protocol at the Vatican.

The following day, he was given a “walking tour” of Rome, which according to a suggested itinerary could include a visit to the Colosseum or some shopping.

An invitation email had said: “You must walk down the Via dei Condotti, where all the designer shops are located. You would want to have your chequebooks or cards ready, if you shop here!”

The Rome trip in May was one of three taken in quick succession by the former Lord Mayor. He also travelled to the United States in late February – to Newport, Boston, and New York – and to California in April.

Mr Fitzgerald led a delegation of thirteen councillors and staff to San Francisco in April. The trip, detailed here, ended up costing €50,000 and proved controversial locally.

The lord mayor had also travelled to the United States earlier in the year when he visited the east coast on a nine-night trip.

Again accompanied by his wife, their airfares for the trip cost €1,746 with another €980 spent on seven nights of hotel accommodation at the four-star Loews in Boston and the Affinia Shelburne in New York.

Two nights of accommodation were provided for free in Newport, Rhode Island by the local tourism authority. Two officials from the local authority accompanied the mayor for the first three nights of the trip.

On his return, Mr Fitzgerald made a subsistence claim of €1,326 – four days in Boston at the rate of US$168.25 per diem and six days in New York at US$159.25.

He said the eight day trip had combined “three visits into one trip” and had involved around thirty separate engagements over there.

“Travelling on three different trips would not have been practical and would have incurred extra expenses,” he said.

As well as promoting Cork in the region, he also visited Irish community members, met two city mayors, launched a public lecture series, attended a parade, paid his respects at the World Trade Centre, and attended an annual dinner dance of the Cork Association New York.