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Spending by the Office of the President to be scrutinised next week

The Secretary General of the Department of An Taoiseach has warned the committee it could be in breach of the Constitution.

THE DÁIL’S PUBLIC Accounts Committee (PAC) is on a collision course with the government after voting to hold a hearing next Tuesday to scrutinise the expenditure by the Office of the President.

This comes despite a warning from the Secretary General of the Department of An Taoiseach that the committee could be in breach of the Constitution.

Secretary General, Martin Fraser, who is the accounting officer to the Office of the President, states in a letter to the committee that the Office is “unique”.

It goes on to state:

letter 5 Letter from Martin Fraser to the PAC

Fraser adds that he is surprised the committee has not referred to Article 13.8.1 of the Constitution, which sets out that the president shall not be answerable to either Houses of the Oireachtas or the court, and said he is surprised it had not sought legal advice on pursuing the issue of investigating the level of spending.

Legal advice

The Secretary General added that he may seek legal advice from the Attorney General on the matter.

The letter also outlines his concerns about the “impartiality of the civil service” and how delving into the spending of the president could impact on the presidential election campaign.

letter 5 Letter from Martin Fraser to the PAC

The procedures to scrutinise the spending were also outlined, with Fraser explaining he gets “assurances” about the money spent by the Secretary General to the President as well as the Controller and Auditor General (C&AG) 

Every September, the C&AG publishes the annual spending figures of State bodies with the overall figure of the spending of the president included – it generally comes in at around €7 million per year. 

However, there is no breakdown of spending included in the report.

Under budget

The C&AG told the PAC today that the spending is often under budget, with 10% of the budget surrendered back in 2016.

Since the presidential election campaigns are already getting underway, the committee’s chairperson Fianna Fáil’s Sean Fleming said a number of journalists have complained that their Freedom of Information requests about presidential spending, such as the cost of travel and hotel costs, have been refused.

He disagreed with Fraser’s opinion that to look into the spending would be unconstitutional, stating that some discussions of the spending has already taken place in another committee this year, for which the Secretary General was present.

‘Major problem’ with letter

Fianna Fáil’s Marc McSharry, clearly taken aback by the letter, told his committee members that he had a “major problem” with the letter, stating that to state it would be “unconstitutional” is “frankly wrong”.

He said the committee is not seeking to question the powers and the functions of the office, merely the spending of it. 

McSharry said the “tone of the letter did bother me”, adding that the Secretary General is seeking to influence the remit of the PAC. He said the committee sets the agenda, no one else. 

“I think we should go ahead and keep questioning as to where does the money go,” he said.

Question of timing 

Fine Gael’s Peter Burke, along with Labour’s Alan Kelly, raised concerns about the timing, stating that the election campaign is underway. They both said delving into the spending, when the incumbent is a candidate in the race, could raise problems.

“I would have huge concerns this could compromise the democratic process,” said Burke, who said it could have an impact on the campaign.

“It will be hard to stay within the lines,” he added.

Kelly said he was shocked the committee had not yet sought legal advice on the matter, stating that it should be done before proceeding any further.

He questioned why this issue is being brought forward now. 

“What is the rush to do it now?” asked Kelly, who added that some people have political capital to be gained from the PAC looking into the spending of the office.

“This campaign is up and running,” said Kelly, who added that what is said at the meeting where spending is discussed will be linked to a candidate.

“We can’t unsay these things and media will not be able to unreport things,” said the Tipperary TD, who added that to proceed will “damage” the PAC.

‘Standoff’ between committee and government

Fianna Fáil Senator Shane Cassels described the Secretary General’s letter as “amazing” and said Fraser was attempting to give a slap to the PAC.

“We’re at a standoff here,” he said, adding that he does not believe looking at the level of spending by the president compromises the democratic process.

Independent TD Catherine Connolly said the level of argument against inquiring into the spending worried her, stating that she was fed up of “patriarchal” arguments from politicians over the public who think “we know best, now is not the time”.

“There is nothing wrong with dealing with information,” she said, adding that practical questions need to be asked about the expenses.

She said perhaps it should have been done sooner, but added that the issues are bigger than the election, such as is the taxpayer getting value for money.

Fleming, the committee chair, said the PAC has never let its agenda be set by the timing of an election. 

The committee voted in favour of holding a hearing next Tuesday to scrutinise the expenditure by the Office of the President. 

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