A REPORT PUBLISHED by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) recently recommended that the allowances afforded to TDs and Senators should be determined by an independent body. It found that it was no longer appropriate for politicians to decide their own level of expenses and that going forward, all expenses incurred should be fully vouched and receipted.
Our current system of attributing TDs’ and Senators’ expenses is wholly non-transparent and easily abused. Although the total amount allocated to each member is published annually, the exact breakdown of how and why it was spent is never released. Allowances are paid up-front to members each month, rather than reimbursed after the event – and Oireachtas members can choose whether to subject themselves to audit.
However, and although the report addresses a clear need for a complete overhaul of the current payments regime, we must not fall victim to bandwagon, populist politics. The system of allowances we have now clearly needs to be reviewed – but it is not going to radically affect the efficiency of the Irish political system.
Within the current system, Oireachtas members receive a higher Public Representation Allowance in return for making receipts available for audit. Even so, nearly one-third of TDs and twice that of Senators choose to opt out of this option, making their expenses up to the maximum value of €12,000 for TDs and €9,250 for Senators entirely unaccountable. Out of those that do choose to vouch for their expenses, only around 10 per cent are ever audited. Even if audited, the resulting report doesn’t specify exactly how a member’s allowance was spent. A member’s receipts are returned to them afterwards and never published.
The secrecy around politicians’ allowances is indicative of a broader, national acceptance of the inaccessibility of government affairs and perpetuates the notion that Oireachtas business is a distant practice, inconsequential to the everyday lives of ordinary citizens. An independent body would transform knowledge about our public representatives’ spending behaviour from an inaccessible cornucopia, into a public service easily available to the electorate – and reinforce an open, more transparent relationship between the government and the citizen population.
The report calls for the review of an extra €10,000 allowance paid to committee chairmen and party whips. The committee also recommends that certain costs previously itemised as expenses should be assigned to basic pay. This would mean politicians would receive certain allowances which are universally paid to all members of their grade as part of their core salary, which would be unavailable to public scrutiny.
PAC also recommends scrapping the additional €41,000 party leader’s allowance currently appropriated to each independent TD and Senator, due to a loophole within our system which effectively double-pays recipient members for certain allowances. This is a recommendation which has been frequently advanced by our national political spending watchdog, the Standards in Public Office Commission. But expecting to lead expenses reform from within the government would be the equivalent to lobbying turkeys to vote for Christmas. Relinquishing authority to a non-governmental commission – similar to IPSA in the UK, which is responsible for paying MPs’ salaries and expenses – is the most appropriate way to enact such potentially politically difficult measures.
Furthermore, by considering the most suitable level of expenses in a detached manner, an independent commission made up of a portion of the electorate reinforces the contention that our political representatives work on our behalf and are consequently, ultimately accountable to the citizen population.
More transparency in how and and on what basis TDs and Senators claim expenses is clearly needed, and the implementation of an independent body is the most legitimate way of achieving this. The PAC Report is a recognition of this need from government officials and we should demand the immediate appointment of such an authority before the matter gets lost in political bickering. This body, like its UK counterpart, should also be authorised to determine the procedures in place for investigating potential abuse of the expenses scheme.
Oireachtas members claim around €7.3 million in expenses annually. Although this figure is expected to increase, any reform to the regime will not make much of a difference to the upcoming Budget. The Irish people deserve to know how their representatives are spending their taxes, but obsessing over politicians expenses is a populist approach which distracts both citizens and representatives from more meaningfully engaging in substantial, constructive dialogue with each other.
The Constitutional Convention is a gesture towards such an approach, but has prioritised inconsequential issues relative to more imminent concerns such as the need for more fundamental political reform.
This debate around TDs’ expenses should become part of a larger conversation around transparency in Irish politics in general, rather than simply a weapon with which to attack our political representatives.
Sarah O’Neill is a TCD student and founder/CEO of www.dailwatch.ie, a non-profit, politically neutral platform for direct, public Q&A between citizens and TDs. The project came about from the ChangeNation initiative which identifies global solutions and adapts them to address Irish challenges. Join the conversation @dailwatch #AskaTD.