PAC ordered to 'desist' from looking into President's spending

The Dáil's public accounts committee has set itself on a collision course with the Government after voting to hold a day-long public review of presidential office spending levels next Tuesday - despite being warned doing so may be "unconstitutional".

PAC ordered to 'desist' from looking into President's spending

By Elaine Loughlin, Political Correspondent

Micheal Martin has ordered the Dáil's Public Accounts Committee to "desist" from looking into the President's spending.

The PAC, which is chaired by Fianna Fáil TD Sean Fleming, has voted to hold a day-long public review of presidential office spending levels next Tuesday - despite being warned doing so may be "unconstitutional".

Speaking at the National Ploughing Championships in Screggan, Co Offaly, Mr Martin said it was his "strong view" that the committee should not go ahead with its probe.

"Given that we are now in the middle of an election, I think the Public Accounts Committee should desist and should meet in the coolness of day in the aftermath of the election.

"If people want the presidency to be treated the same as any other Government department let's make that decision outside of an election context."

But Mr Martin said there "was a reason" why the office of the president had been originally left outside the scope of FOI.

He added that "people will read all sorts of agendas" into discussing it now.

While he said members of the committee may be "doing this for genuine reasons" but he said the issue had not been raised in previous years.

"It's coming up now in the middle of a presidential election and I would be worried about how PAC will be perceived," he said.

Earlier: PAC and Government on collision course over presidential spending investigation

By Fiachra O'Cionnaith

Update 10.35am: The Dáil's public accounts committee has set itself on a collision course with the Government after voting to hold a day-long public review of presidential office spending levels next Tuesday - despite being warned doing so may be "unconstitutional".

The powerful cross-party committee agreed to hold the public questions just 24 hours before nominations close for who will be the presidential candidates next Wednesday, and after an hour of intense debate this morning.

In response to calls in the Irish Examiner last month from PAC chair and Fianna Fáil TD Sean Fleming for an investigation into the near €50m total spend in the presidential office since 2011, the Government ruled out the move.

In a letter to the PAC earlier this week, published today, Department of the Taoiseach secretary general Martin Fraser said he would not allow such an examination as it may be "unconstitutional", politically motivated and could damage the credibility of the now imminent presidential election campaign next month.

During an hour-long debate on Thursday morning, PAC members clashed over whether to allow the investigation to take place.

However, despite concerns from Labour's Alan Kelly, Sinn Féin's David Cullinane and Fine Gael's Peter Burke, PAC chair Mr Fleming put down a motion to hold a day long investigation next Tuesday - the day before presidential candidate nominations close - which was passed by the committee.

"The PAC doesn't stop it's work when there is an election. We will proceed with the examination on Tuesday, the committee does not need legal advice,"he said, in a motion that was seconded by Fianna Fáil colleague Marc Mac Sharry.

In an hour-long debate on the issue, Mr Fleming said the issue is "time sensitive" and that as such it must take place next Tuesday as he does not want it to occur when the official presidential election race begins on Wednesday.

However, although he was supported by Fianna Fáil TDs Mr Mac Sharry, Shane Cassels and notably Independent TD Catherine Connolly, who is widely seen as a middleground voice on the PAC, the presidential spending review calls led to widespread criticism from other members.

They included Labour TD and PAC vice-chair Alan Kelly who, in a detailed response to Mr Fleming's plan, warned:

"I find it extraordinary we haven't gotten legal advice [on whether a presidential spending review can be allowed].

"We've gotten legal advice for less. You have to wonder regarding why this is being brought forward now, what is the rush to do it now. Anyone watching proceedings and thinks there isn't some form of political capital to be gained right now, it's just not real.

"It would be impossible to unsay things that would be said in here about a candidate in office, you [Sean Fleming] need to think about that.

I think this rubbish about doing it before a closing date is insincere and rubbish. This campaign is up and running, it's everywhere, it's been the most dominant story in the media.

"We might leave our political jerseys outside the door, but you will not be able to unsay what is said in here, and that is going to damage this committee and have an impact on the election. Now we will damn well better get legal advice, I won't be associated with a committee that does this, things will be said in here, no doubt."

However, Fianna Fáil TD Mr Mac Sharry countered by saying:

"I just think we should do it [the review] and get it over with. I do have a problem with Mr Fraser's letter, he quotes the constitution and he's wrong.

"I don't see how it is remotely the case that this is unconstitutional or affecting the independence of civil servants, in fact it is the converse, here we have a senior civil servant directly the committee, and I have a serious issue with that.

"So, thanks Mr Fraser for the advice, I think it is flawed, incorrect and under no circumstances are we seeking to undermine civil servants impartiality in the process.

"I feel on my time on the committee at no time did any take the political jersey through that door."

Asked by committee member and Fianna Fáil TD Bobby Aylward for any indication of spending levels in the office of the presidency, independent State financial watchdog the comptroller and auditor general Seamus McCarthy said he will have updated topline figures available at the end of next week but that generally the office stays 10% under-budget.

The decision to ignore Mr Fraser's demand that a presidential office spending investigation cannot take place has set the PAC on a direct collision course with the Government and its most senior civil servant, who will now be asked to attend the high-profile PAC emergency meeting on the issue next Tuesday.

Earlier: Probe into presidential spend blocked by Government

By Fiachra O'Cionnaith

Update 6.45am: The Government has blocked plans for a public investigation into spending in Michael D Higgins’ presidential office before next month’s Áras election amid claims any review would be “unconstitutional” and politically motivated.

Department of the Taoiseach secretary general Martin Fraser ruled out the move in a letter to the Public Accounts Committee, warning he will ask Attorney General Seamus Woulfe to intervene if the review demands continue to be made.

Last month, PAC chair and Fianna Fáil TD Sean Fleming said he wants to investigate the amount of money being spent in the office of the presidency amid suggestions it has hit €50m since 2011. However, in a four-page letter sent to the PAC on Monday, Mr Fraser, the accounting officer for presidential spending, said the examination will not be allowed under any circumstances.

Describing the demand for an investigation as “unique”, he said he believes any review would be “unconstitutional” and could be interpreted as being politically motivated. He warned he will ask the attorney general to intervene if the demands continue.

It is important to respect the constitutional provisions relating to the President, the Government, the judiciary and the Oireachtas. An equally substantive concern relates to the political impartiality of the civil service. I cannot accept your suggestion that the campaigning period has not yet started.

“To summarise, therefore, I believe your proposal appears to be unconstitutional and to undermine the principle of the political impartiality of the civil service. I would be grateful for any legal advice that you have received on the matter. It may be that I would also need to ask for formal advice from the attorney general.”

While the PAC is understood to have been finely balanced on whether to support an investigation when Mr Fleming suggested it last month, Mr Fraser’s letter led to an angry reaction from a number of PAC members.

Social Democrats TD Catherine Murphy, whose party is supporting Mr Higgins’ re-election, said “no office should be outside the bounds of scrutiny” and that “it’s not an unreasonable request to examine how that office is maintained”.

Fianna Fáil TD Marc Mac Sharry labelled Mr Fraser’s letter “bizarre” and insisted nothing in the Constitution blocks an investigation. He claimed the Government is attempting to hamstring the PAC’s work.

Presidential office spending has threatened to become a key part of the Áras race, with Sean Gallagher and Gavin Duffy saying they want transparency on how public money is being spent.

Mr Gallagher met yesterday in Leinster House with Fianna Fáil TDs including James Lawless, who tweeted a photograph with Mr Gallagher at a Defence Forces protest alongside the quote “with the next commander in chief” despite his party officially backing Mr Higgins’ re-election campaign.

Mr Fraser’s letter will be discussed this morning before the PAC meets with Nama and the State Claims Agency to discuss the housing crisis and millions of euro in medical negligence payouts.

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