The Dual Abode Allowance

The Examiner scooped me on Monday morning with their lede about the dual abode allowance, a story billed as a “revelation“.

I’d be working on-off on a piece on the DAA since August having heard it was racket for non-Dublin ministers.

To briefly explain: The Dual Abode Allowance is open to ministers and ministers of state from constituencies outside Dublin. It’s an income tax deduction which they can claim in a number of ways, depending on where they say they stay whilst attending the Dáil. There are no details on who avails of it, Revenue Commissioners cite “personal taxpayer confidentiality”, and several FOIs have been bounced in the last decade for the same reasons. So we know little of which ministers benefit from it, or to what extent. It’s rarely reported on due to this derth of information, though journalists and politicians know it’s there, and due to its quiet nature, it could be abused. It’s not a secret, if you ask someone relevant – even a politician –  about it and they’ll admit it exists – it’s not the Delta Force of allowances, as some may have you believe*.

It works like this; if a minister or minister of state has a second home in the capital they can claim an allowance on the mortgage for that property and on the costs of maintaining it. The maintenance costs must be vouched, unless they wish to opt for a flat-rate allowance of €6,500 (nice option, huh?). Furthermore, if the property is purchased while they’re in office they can claim for the full costs of the solicitors and auctioneers fees involved.

Ministers who rent accommodation can claim allowance for the full rent that plus maintenance costs, or a flat-rate of €4,500 per annum.

Lastly, if they’re using a hotel or guesthouse while in Dublin they can claim for the full cost of staying there, plus “additional costs associated with maintaining a second residence in a hotel” (whatever they may be, in a hotel – considering they can claim subsistence expenses generally also). A relative or friend’s house may constitute a guesthouse.

18 office holders availed of the allowance in 2005, 15 in 2006 and 16 in 2007, according to documents volunteered in August to me by the Revenue Commissioners after a brief phone call. A follow up email resulted in them supplying totals from 2002, 2003 and 2004 also. I’ve put all that documentation into one file, it can be viewed here and includes breakdowns for 2005, 2006 and 2007, which may interest some. That is the same information Shaun Connolly used for his story on the front of Monday’s Examiner, which was followed up on Tuesday and Wednesday. As he correctly points out, the cost over five years to the exchequer was just more than €550,000.

While that may seem a large figure in its own right, I didn’t think much of it upon receipt of the information. At least 18 different ministers, over three years, an average of circa €5,000, it’s not going to bring down the house – sure, the Leinster House lads spend that in a weekend at the races. I thought there may have been more to it than simply the €550,000 number, so I went looking.

I took the names of cabinet ministers who could avail of allowance and their wives names to the Land Registry to see if any of them owned property in Dublin. After checking out the results, I had drawn a bit of a blank (such is journalism; shadows, cul de sacs etc) so I tried cross referencing a few bits and pieces.

I gathered the names of every person who had occupied a minister or minister of state’s position in since 2004 and began some serious Microsoft Excelling. When I had the list of names I added their constituencies to see how many would have been able to claim the allowance each year. This wasn’t as simple as it may sound, reshuffles meant 2 ministers occupied one post in the same year. The results of the cross referencing can be seen on sheet two of this document:

  • 24 could have claimed DAA in 2004 – 13 did.
  • 23 in 2005 – 18
  • 24 in 2006 – 15
  • 28 in 2007 – 18

The numbers of claimants were not supplied for the other years, so it could not be calculated.

2005 had the smallest differential between claimants and possible claimants, so I worked on that to try and discover who exactly was claiming the allowance that year. I found this article by Harry McGee from last year in The Irish Times archive which gave me some more info. McGee reported that Noel Dempsey and Dermot Ahern travel home each night after the Dáil, making it logical to assume they don’t claim the allowance.

That reduces the differential to 3… two of the possible claimants, Barry Andrews and Mary Hanafin, are from Dun Laoghaire, which is easily within driving distance of the Dáil (particularly when you’ve a ministerial car and driver), so it may be fair to assume they don’t sleep in the city when the Dáil is in session. Assuming they don’t claim leaves one non-claimant from 2005 that we don’t know about. Taking it that a minister claiming the allowance in 2005 has continued to do so, we can logically conclude that all bar one of the following is claiming DAA:

Mary Coughlan, Brendan Smith, Martin Cullen, Eamon O’Cuiv, Willie O’Dea, Batt O’Keeffe, Micheal Martin, Dick Roche, Tony Killeen and Michael Finneran.

However, that relies on the taking Dermot Ahern and Noel Dempsey assertions that they travel home as a statement that they don’t claim the allowance and the assumption the two Dun Laoghaire representatives don’t claim.

In the end I got nothing unexpected, sometimes you chase stories and get nothing, no regrets.

Of course, the real story would be if Brian Cowen was still claiming it for his apartment behind the Four Courts, while having use of Farmleigh as Taoiseach. That was what I ultimately wanted to discover, unfortunately I didn’t have the resources to do so. Someone should consider asking An Taoiseach that question…

Note: A TD is claiming whilst not using the property personally – e.g. allowing a son or daughter to use the property while attending college in Dublin – is what is referred to in the UK as ‘house flipping’. And we know what happened when MPs admitted to that

Footnote A: I am aware there is an FOI being appealed on further details of the DAA at present.

Footnote B: It was still worth going after the bigger story to get scooped on the smaller one.

Footnote C: Enda Kenny has said he will abolish this allowance if he becomes Taoiseach; populist rhetoric of which I believe not a word. But I’ve taken note.

* now that you know about the uber-secret allowance, I will have to kill you.

Breen, O'Keeffe and Lowry claim €205.78 per day?

I’ve been doing the maths on the expenses documents Gav published last week. An interesting exercise…

As reported by the Tribune, the three biggest expense claimants over the last four years were Ned O’Keeffe of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael’s Pat Breen and the independent TD Michael Lowry, so I’ve been looking at them to begin.

Before I go any further I wish to say I’ll be getting the median claimant and doing something similar to this at a later date too, before any one tells me I’m a populist gobshite for picking the top three (I knew that already).

Messrs Breen, O’Keeffe and Lowry all claimed within €10,000 of €300,000 for the period covering 2005 to 2008, mainly for the same things, so for the purpose of this post I’ll won’t be differentiating between them. Additionally, Gavin has since received documents for 2003 and 2004 – which he’ll post when he gets a chance – so I’ll be including their details from those years here too. Therefore the following numbers could from FOI documents for 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008 for Pat Breen, Ned O’Keeffe and Michael Lowry. Feel free to challenge my methodology, or attempt to use your own, but I’m fairly confident in my maths (while welcoming confirmation/correction from those more qualified in the field)…

All of this is on top of the their salaries of around €100,000 per annum.

Over six years they claimed €1,319,070.49 (€1.3m) between the three of them.

In an average year they each claimed €75,110.21 (Seventy five thousand one hundred and ten euro, and twenty-one cent).

That works out at €205.78 every single day, [Annual figure divided by 365].

Which equals €1440.46 per 7 days. [Daily figure multiplied by seven]

However, I know most years the Dáil sits just 96 days per year, so that means they claimed: €782.39 per sitting day. [Total figure divided by 3 then divided by 576 – which is 96 multiplied by six]

…but I also know TDs say they do crazy hours in their constituency. If I take it that they’ve worked every day except Sundays and the 9 public holidays for all six years, the figure is €247.07 per working day. [365 minus 52 (Sundays per year) and nine (Bank holidays per year), then multiplied by six, all divided into the total expenses figure of €1.3m, then divided by three]

Finally, I’ve calculated that if on every one of those days, (six days per week for six years, without exception – no holidays, no half-days, no sick leave) they worked for 12 hours, they’d be claiming €20.59 per hour. [€247.07 divided by 12]

Note: the minimum wage is €8.65. Jobs Seekers Allowance is around €200 per week. And as stated, the above is on top of large salaries.

What do you make of that? That’s some amount of phone calls, and some serious petrol and lunch bills if you ask me.

You can view the document I used to calculate these figures here.

Two things I’d like to know: Why did Ned O’Keeffe claim €675 just last year for an ISDN line. Those lines are out-dated and useless for nothing except radio interviews… and very rarely used for those as a phone line is almost always more than sufficient. They’re slightly quicker than dail-up for browsing the internet, and far slower than an off-the-shelf broadband package, what’s he using the line for so? It certainly doesn’t sound like he used it for the interview with Newstalk I drew attention to a few weeks ago. Remember? The one where he waffled about politicians being value for money and expenses keeping corruption to a minimum… I wonder if he’d appear on morning radio to defend his expenses now? Hmmm.

Also, what do the constituency offices of these three lads look like? They spent about €52,ooo each on their constituency offices between 2003 and 2008, the offices all must be century-old manor houses in need of constant maintenance if they cost that much to keep upright, surely?

Footnote: The Sunday Tribune used the documents Gavin published here last week for their frontpage story and a double-page spread inside yesterday, taking the details to an audience larger than we could hope for here. Their report was followed up on RTÉ Radio too. I noticed said “some newspapers” had reported the information, if you spotted them in papers other than the Trib, do let us know. In fact, if you notice what appears to be one of our stories in any media, whether we’re mentioned or not, throw us a mail [tips AT thestory DOT ie].

We’re not interested in invoicing or shaming those who don’t credit us (though we’re no fans of the latter), just in seeing how the information disseminates. Thus far we’re aware of mentions in the Sunday Times, Irish Times, Daily Mail, Sunday Tribune, Irish Examiner, and of course Gavin’s appearance on RTÉ’s Prime Time. Not bad for a project that only started seven weeks ago, but we’d like to keep track…

Oireachtas expenses FOI

I have responded to the Oireachtas, seeking all expenses data from January 1, 2003 to December 31, 2004. I have sought an estimate of how much this is likely to cost.

The Oireachtas communications office has also been in touch regarding the letter I received, and I am happy to give them an opportunity to respond:

“The letter which was sent to you about your freedom of information request used the phrase “there is a gap in the hard copy records” and this gave the impression that there was a gap in the records on members’ expenses held by the Houses of the Oireachtas. When it said that there was a gap in the hard copy records in respect of the period from 1st January 1998 to 31st March 1998 and for the month of May 2000, this means that these dates were not covered by previously existing FOI requests. You had specifically sought previously released information and we were simply trying to point out that not all of the periods sought by you were covered under previously released FOI requests.

In addition, you might wish to be aware that, the period 1st January 98 – 31st March 98 is outside the scope of FOI as FOI only came into effect in 21st April 98.

As for the three periods

April 1999 to October 1999

June 2000 to June 2001

July 2002 to June 2003

The letter said that it was unclear that the final released data is available for those periods as the material has not, as yet, been located:

Again, this may have given the impression that our records were incomplete. But this is not the case. The requests for those periods was in the early days of FOI when everything was done manually. We don’t have ready access to those files, but they’re not missing. They do exist but it will take some time and effort to locate them. You will not be charged for the time taken to locate the files but you may be charged for the retrieval and copying of the records on them which is mandatory under the FOI Acts.”

For me though, the broader point is this: expenses data should be published online as a matter of course. I should not have to FOI this information, nevermind the costs issue.

Oireachtas expenses

Thank you to everyone for comments, suggestions and donations over the weekend in reference to our seeking information regarding expenses from the Houses of the Oireachtas, 1998 – 2008. It is all very much appreciated. I want to outline a number of options available, and what myself and Mark have looked at in terms of where to go from here.

First, donations since Friday: €520 (with more pledged in the event of moving forward). Thank you everyone.

Second, I should make a point regarding the quality of the information we are seeking. Expenses claimed by TDs and Senators are generally vague. This is a product of the system that has been constructed by the Oireachtas. The information we would receive would not be at the level of detail of recent disclosures concerning John O’Donoghue (they were from a Department). The information would be broad amounts under broad headings, containing mainly sub-total and total figures. Many expenses remain unvouched, so members are not required to produce receipts in order to claim.

The rationale for claiming this information is this: it at least puts these broad amounts, by TD/Senator, on the record. This is a starting point or foundation for where we move in terms of getting more information. All of this information is also sought for eventual inclusion into member profiles on KildareStreet. I believe getting this information on the record is worth the effort, whatever about the cost, which leads me to the next point.

There are a number of options open to us, including:

1) Inspecting the records in person
2) Restricting the request to a tighter date range, in order to reduce costs
3) Seeking to raise the full amount
4) Seeking out a TD to get the information for us

1) Remains a possibility, and may be an option for a future FOI
2) and 4) are being actively considered
3) Is I feel asking too much in one go

So our proposition is this:

Request a restricting of the date range, and receive a new cost estimate for that date range. We propose starting chronologically and first seeking all expenses data for 1998 and 1999. While we await that revised cost estimate (which I imagine would be entirely covered by donations already received), we will pursue asking a TD to table a question to get the data.

Depending on the outcome of that, we would get the 1998/99 data initially, and then go after the following years over the coming months, spreading the cost out. People would also get to see the quality (or lack of quality) of the data we are receiving from the Oireachtas.

Post script: I shared a byline on a story in the today’s Irish Examiner about this issue.

TD and Senate expenses 1998 – 2008

No, we don’t have the expenses, yet anyway. But we have started the process. In August I sent the following FOI request to the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission (the crowd who manage the Dail and Seanad):

August 17, 2009

Request for access to records under the Freedom of Information Acts 1997 and 2003

Dear Sir/Madam,

In accordance with Section 7 of the above mentioned Acts, I wish to request access to the following records which I believe to be held by the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission (“the Commission”):

1) A breakdown of all expenses claimed by TDs broken down by TD and by the following calendar years: 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002, 2001, 2000, 1999, 1998, 1997

2) A breakdown of all expenses claimed by Senators broken down by Senator and by the following calendar years: 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004, 2003, 2002, 2001, 2000, 1999, 1998, 1997

3) The guidelines provided to TDs and Senators on how they can claim expenses. A guide as to what they are and are not allowed to claim and what documentation is required in order to claim expenses.

My preferred form of access to these documents is in digital format.

Given that much if not all of this information has already been found and produced I do not anticipate that any exemptions will be required nor that any further costs other than the standard €15 charge will be incurred.

If you decide to request further payment I would like to be provided with an itemised fees receipt outlining precisely why an additional cost is required.


Gavin Sheridan

I since received a phonecall, outlining that data from 2005 on (since it has been digitised), would be made available in September. So the other part of my FOI refers to information between 1997 (1998 really since the FOI Act does not cover 1997) and 2004, or stuff that has not been digitised and is sitting in boxes somewhere. Today I received an estimated cost for search and retrieval of this information.

There are two newsworthy snippets in the letter. First, the bad news:

“After consideration and consultations, I estimate that the services of staff members totalling 110 hours will be the minimum required to efficiently complete the search and retrieval work on the balance of your request for the years 1998 to 2004… The prescribed amount chargeable for each such hour is €20.95 resulting in a fee of €2,304. Additionally, it is estimated that a total of 3,200 pages containing the records for the period from 1998 to 2004 will have to be photocopied, resulting in a further charge of €136.00 with the overall fee amounting to €2,440.”

Yes, you read that right.

Second, the not so bad news:

“… there is a gap in in the hard copy records in respect of the period from January 1, 1998 to March 31, 1998. In addition, it is unclear that the final released data is available for the following periods as the material has not, as yet, been located:

April 1999 to October 1999
June 2000 to June 2001
July 2002 to June 2003

If you require retrieval of these records it is likely to involve a substantial number of man-hours and a corresponding increase in the fee to be charged. I would be grateful if you would let me know if you require those records.”

Why is this not so bad? Well the news aspect firstly. The Houses of the Oireachtas have so far been unable to locate expenses data for a combined period of 29 months. Eh? Not alone that, they want to charge me to find this information. Information that really should be in the public domain anyway. But we have to deal with the system we have…

Why do we want this data? Because we want a full historical account of all expenses claimed on record, for all national public representatives. It is also data that would be integrated into KildareStreet.

I’m gonna throw this question at our readers, what do you think we should do?

I have a few ideas on how to proceed, but I’d like to get some feedback first.

Please note though: We have not decided as yet to proceed with raising this level of funding, so please don’t donate specifically for this data. We will decide how to proceed next week.

Suggestions wanted for donations

A number of people have contacted us over the last few weeks wondering if they could chip in a few quid to help us fund our work… now they can. See: Paypal donate button, on your right.

Now, as those who have read our prior posts will know, we’re always harping on about transparency and the wisdom of The Crowd. However, at the minute we’re unsure as to how to set up our donations system in the most transparent, but practical, way possible.

At present the donate button is linked to Gavin’s PayPal acount (to which I also now have access), that’s a temporary measure, we plan to open a joint account specifically for TheStory donations. When we get that sorted here’s what I’m suggesting: We publish details – monetary amounts, name of donor, general location – in a post at the end of each month.

Then, we will receipt spending and publish it all here. These would essentially be our receipts, made public when the story is complete or gone stale… FOI, Land Registry, CRO and all other government documents would be included…

Gavin wonders if people will be comfortable having their names listed as donors – I said if they can provide a solid reason why their name should not be published, we’ll accept that but names should be published by default perhaps.

Any alternative suggestions?

FYI: Circa €250 has already been spent on FOIs etc in the last three weeks, would people agree that this would be covered? Opinions wanted. No profit will be made from this, all time, travel expenses and communication costs etc will be taken from our own pockets.

How much do the Houses of the Oireachtas cost us?

So during the buildup to Brian Cowen appearing on the Late Late Show, the Department of Finance went and published a huge amount of information onto their website, the Special Group Background Documents, submitted by departments etc to Bord Snip, to outline how they proposed cutting back.

It is worth noting that many or all of these documents were actively being sought by journalists through FOI requests, and in the normal course of events, would have been gradually released with redactions. But the Department, on a Friday evening, dumped the entire lot:

To facilitate the work of the Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes, the heads of the various Government Departments/Public Bodies prepared initial evaluation papers detailing their areas of expenditure. The Department of Finance also prepared separate evaluation papers on each area, as well as some papers evaluating a range of cross-cutting issues. These documents are set out below for reference; with a limited number of redactions in some cases in line with the provisions of the Freedom of Information Acts 1997 and 2003 (please click here for more information in this regard).

I was particularly interested in the Houses of the Oireachtas. It outlines spending by the House over the past six years, and gives a breakdown on how much it costs the taxpayer to pay for the Dail and Seanad. Continue reading “How much do the Houses of the Oireachtas cost us?”