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.

Sincerely,

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.