The ongoing debacle over expenses involving Fianna Fáil senators Callely and Butler is symbolic of a number of shortcomings in our political system – notably the lack of transparency and inadequate regulatory controls over all aspects of party finance (about which, see the previous posting here). The Oireachtas website helpfully sets out the details of the existing regulations and provides up to date information on monthly allowances to TDs and Senators (information that has fed the current controversy over the two senators). There can be no doubt that this is a welcome development; it’s fine time that citizens had access to this sort of information.
But is this sufficient? Take the issue of unvouched allowances, for instance. Here are the rules relating to TDs:
‘Members select either a vouched or unvouched allowance option at the start of the year.
VOUCHED ALLOWANCE: €25,700 MAXIMUM ANNUAL AMOUNT
Where evidence in the form of vouchers or receipts is available to show that the expenses were incurred (held for five years as subject to audit)
UNVOUCHED ALLOWANCE: €15,000 MINIMUM ANNUAL AMOUNT
This amount is certified by Members as expended in accordance with the regulations.
Purposes of Allowance
1. Rent, rates and other such charges in relation to an office or offices,
2. Utilities of an office or offices (e.g. electricity and gas bills),
3. Improvements to office accommodation,
4. Signage in respect of the constituency office,
5. Purchase or maintenance of office furniture or equipment,
6. Purchase of stationery,
7. Insurance including for office accommodation or equipment and public liability insurance,
8. Cleaning of office accommodation,
9. Telephone calls, otherwise than from Leinster House, including line rental and mobile phone calls, relating to the performance of his/her duties as a Member,
10. Web hosting and other related computer costs,
11. Hiring rooms for clinics or other meetings relating to the performance of his or her duties as a Member of the Oireachtas,
12. Leaflet and newsletter distribution,
13. Advertising relating to the performance of his or her duties as a Member,
14. Attendance at conferences relating to the performance of his or her duties as a Member (except expenses relating to travel).’
I assume that it is administrative efficiency that is used as the main reason for allowing such a large proportion of unvouched claims. Is this good enough? Why should we not require full receipts for all claims? Only by that means can we ensure that the monies are used appropriately. For that matter, why can’t the receipts be scanned in and posted on the Oireachtas website for all to see? Doubtless, the vast bulk of our elected representatives make fully legitimate claims. But to be certain that this is the case right across the board, why can’t this information be provided in a fully open and transparent way?
3 thoughts on “Callely puts Oireachtas expenses in spotlight”
There seems to be an argument that an unvouched expenses regime is administratively more efficient, and perhaps ensures that TDs get more value for their money because they try to maximise the benefit from a set amount. Of course, there’s noting to stop a TD just using his/ her unvouched expenses as a top up of their salary (and this was what was accepted as the practice in the UK). We’ve got pretty high salaries for our legislators (comparatively) so this shouldn’t be a route we would want to go down.
John Carroll said in an earlier comment -not visible now- that ‘parliamentary duties’ was impossibly broad, which it is. But there are certain things that we don’t want to subsidise. Leo Varadkar (http://www.leovaradkar.ie/?p=259) should be applauded for publishing his expenses online. It allows us to see what a TD actually spend his money on. In 2008 he donated over €1000 to charity, and then made the taxpayer pay! He also took, I suppose, senior citizens from Castleknock to the Dáil bar and bought them tea. Over a year this type of hospitality cost us nearly €1500. Again this type of canvassing is not something the taxpayer should pay for.
Varadkar is one of the most effective TDs in the Dáil. One can only imagine what some other TDs spend their money on.
I agree that vouching expenses seems to be the only way to go, and submitting copies of all expenses that are then made public seems reasonable – everyone else has to do it.
If unvouched expenses were is administratively more efficient it would probably be a safe assumption these would be the dominant method in the private sector. However, I think it is fair to assume this is not the case. Vouching every expense and publishing seems fair. Interesting too to note that the Irish Times and the Irish Independent are both saying that Callely should be asked to resign. On the same basis so should Butler if it is true is that he made €20,000 more from expenses by living in Co Kilkenny rather than his address in Dun Laoghaire. The Taoiseach has dismissed Labour’s call for Mr Callely’s removal from the Seanad, suggesting it risked “prejudicing” the inquiry. Nonetheless, he could be stripped of the party whip “without prejudice” next week while the Seanad probe progressed. Labour’s Gilmore insisted that as an unelected Taoiseach’s nominee to the Seanad, Mr Cowen should now insist he stood down. What may be concentrating Cowen’s mind is the balance of power in the Senate. The FF and Green total is now 30 compared with 22 for FG, Labour and SF. There are 7 non-aligned senators with only one (Eoghan Harris) aligned firmly to Fianna Fail. Senator Dominc Hannigan has provided a useful summary of how these senators voted on the Nama legislation. Only Fiona O’Malley voted with the government on every vote. However, Senators Fergal Quinn and Joe O’Toole did not vote against the government abstaining on some key votes. Nonetheless, the resignation of two Senators could make for interesting arithmetic and increased uncertainty for the government.
Just in relation to the above, my (very limited) understanding of the administration of expenses in the private sector are driven primarily by the rules of Revenue Commissioner rather than efficiency.
On the grounds of transparency, there is an undoubtedly convincing case for the vouching of all expenses. Indeed, if I were to design a system myself from scratch it would involve TDs and Senators being given a credit card, and all expenses on the card being published at the end of the month. On top of that, I would have the state provide directly (like the European Parliament offices on Molesworth Street) offices for TDs to use in each constituency. And on top of which, the state would have buy some property in the city centre, and directly provide accommodation for TDs and Senators who need to stay up in town overnight.
However, we are not starting from scratch, and while transparency demands vouching, people should not presume that vouching will be the cheapest option. It will require greater bureaucratic resources to administer, and the incentives to reduce costs in vouched systems are not as strong.
A point touched on by Eoin O’Malley above, it that of parliamentary duties. I think this is an area worthy of some more detailed consideration. We have had debates in the past about how TDs spend their time, and now about expenses. But in all the recent talk of political reform in Ireland, we have had very little consideration of the role of the parliamentarian themselves. If we had a better idea of what we expect from our TDs and the Senators, then the debate about the appropriate resourcing of parliamentarians would be far better informed.