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No increase to general election spending limits for candidates over concerns it would cost an extra €190,000

Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government Eoghan Murphy decided against the increase.

Minister Eoghan Murphy.
Minister Eoghan Murphy.
Image: Leah Farrell

MINISTER EOGHAN MURPHY decided against increasing general election spending limits for candidates amid concerns taxpayers would be hit with an extra bill of almost €190,000.

Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government Eoghan Murphy was told that the amount somebody could spend to get themselves elected to the Dáil had not changed since 2007 despite a 7.5% increase in consumer prices since.

However, civil servants cautioned that the potential €188,750 bill for a hike in limits might be unpalatable not least because of uncertainties over Brexit.

He was warned this could lead to “public criticism that the money could be better spent elsewhere”.

A submission for the minister said: “It may be difficult to justify a measure to facilitate increased spending by those involved in politics when other sectors of the economy may be facing significant challenges ahead.”

Officials had put forward options for increasing spending limits by between €2,250 and €3,300 depending on the size of the constituency involved.

This would have brought the spending limit in a three-seater up to €32,400, in a four-seater to €40,400, and in a five-seat constituency to €48,500.

The maximum reimbursement amount would be increased by €600 from €8,700 to €9,300 under the proposed move.

Based on what had happened in 2016 when 321 candidates had been paid back around €2.7 million, the taxpayer could expect a bill of €2.88 million if the changes were introduced.

The internal submission, obtained under Freedom of Information, said there were arguments both for and against the increase in expenditure.

Inflation had increased moderately and with that the cost of typical election goods like stationary, printing, transport, and postage.

“The ability to conduct an election campaign is an important part of the democratic process, and there is a case for the spending limits to reflect the current costs associated with this,” it said.

It said that this year’s general election would see 160 TDs elected but that population increases meant that political representation was reaching the “maximum ratio” allowed in the constituency.

“[This] means that candidates will have to reach a larger number of voters than would otherwise be the case if the population had not increased,” said the submission.

“Election campaigns can be costly and the reimbursement of election expenses is important in supporting participation in the democratic process.”

Officials also argued that introducing graduated increases would avoid any “sudden shocks” to election funding that might ensure public controversy.

It asked: “What would be the cumulative increase in the Consumer Price Index if no changes were made for another 5/6 years, in particular if such years were to be a period of high inflation?”

Arguments against making any change included uncertainty over Brexit and the careful approach to public spending that had been used in making decisions for Budget 2020.

Minister Murphy was told another possibility would be to increase only the spending limits for the election, but not the amount that would be repaid by the Exchequer.

This would guarantee a “cost-neutral” approach for the taxpayer but would have given candidates a 7.5% boost in what they could spend.

Murphy opted to make no changes to the spending limits. In a handwritten note on the submission on 7 November, he wrote: “No change to spending limits or reimbursement amount.”

A spokesman said: “It is a matter for the minister to vary the spending limits and reimbursement amounts in respect of the different elections that may be held having regard to changes in the consumer price index.

“In the context of the Dáil elections, the minister considered the existing limits in the final quarter of last year and, having regard to the arguments both in favour and against change, decided not to vary the limits.

“While the spending limits and the reimbursement amount had not been changed since early 2007, the cumulative increase in the consumer price index over the intervening years was relatively modest.”

The spokesman said that any potential change would have been unlikely to have had a significant effect on the election.

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Ken Foxe

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