COLETTE BROWNE: Politicians must remove discredited system of allowances and expenses

THE Government took a brief break from taking an axe to public services last week in order to bulldoze through its labyrinthine €112m Oireachtas budget without any potentially embarrassing debate.

The 2013 estimates, which include salary payments of over €20m and expenses of €11m for our elected representatives, is a €4m increase on this year’s estimates — an increase that, apparently, is not worth a single second of debate in the Dáil.

Perhaps the Government, having spent months going through other public sector budgets with a fine-tooth comb, desperately looking for services to slash, was too tired to trouble itself with the tedious minutiae of its own byzantine finances.

In any event, sniffed Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore, when Independent TD Stephen Donnelly had the temerity to label the Dáil “a joke of a parliament” following the guillotining of the budget, couldn’t TDs content themselves with a retrospective, and consequently utterly pointless, debate when they return from their Halloween holidays on Nov 6? People often deride Dáil debates as a futile charade, given the Government’s stonking majority, but there’s something particularly sad and pathetic about the prospect of members of our national parliament earnestly debating the pros and cons of a budget the week after it has been passed.

Considering it was the Government’s bright idea to facilitate a retrospective debate, one wonders if it’s deliberately attempting to make a laughing stock out of our parliamentarians, or if it’s just a natural consequence of the arrogant attitude with which it’s conducting itself in office?

Long-suffering citizens — who for years have watched in slack-jawed amazement as wily TDs, bereft of imagination in every other respect, managed to consistently dream up increasingly fantastical ways of being paid dubious allowances — were again reminded of the yawning cultural chasm that exists between Irish politicians and their UK counterparts when it comes to the payment of perks, this week.

Disgraced Tory chief whip, Andrew Mitchell, who was forced to resign after allegedly calling a Downing Street police officer a “pleb”, managed to slightly redeem himself when he announced he was donating his £8,000 severance pay to charity. Compare this behaviour to that of former Labour super junior Minister, Willie Penrose, who packed in the job after eight months when he didn’t get his own way on a local issue while pocketing a cool €30,000 in “severance” money.

The Labour TD, who has since resumed his work as a barrister in tandem with carrying out his duties as a backbench TD, was entitled to the so-called severance pay despite the fact that he resigned from the position and, unlike people in the private sector who lose their jobs, was still in receipt of a generous salary of over €92,000.

The fact that a bust Government, forced to grovel and beg for money from the troika every quarter, is still making these shameful redundancy payments to former ministers, is a scandal. 

It is iniquitous payments like these, to politicians who seem to be talking out of two sides of their mouths, which drive ordinary people mental and provide shows like Liveline with ample incendiary fodder.

Most reasonable people, I think, would accept that TDs have a difficult job and that, to ensure politics doesn’t remain the preserve of only those who can afford to enter the political arena, politicians should receive a decent wage for their efforts.

To my mind, the basic €92,672 salary TDs receive is a fair sum for being on call 24/7, to every crackpot in their constituency, while also being treated with the same level of contempt that one normally reserves for dog dirt on the footpath by the general populace.

While politicians are entitled to a generous basic salary, payments begin entering the realm of dictatorial African autocrat once their myriad allowance, expense and pension entitlements are factored into the equation.

Why, for example, is the taoiseach of a bankrupt state with a population of less than five million people paying himself more than the prime minister of the UK, with its 62 million citizens? Why are TDs who live in Dublin city paid up to €12,000 a year for the herculean feat of actually turning up to work? Why are the 11 members of Houses of the Oireachtas Commission paid an annual stipend of €9,500 by virtue, simply, of their appointment? Why is the Fianna Fáil party whip getting €19,000 a year for whipping just 19 TDs — 1,000 per politician? Why is an assistant whip getting a further €9,500? Why are the chairs of committees allowed an additional phone allowance of €1,100 per annum when, presumably, the majority of their calls are made from inside Leinster House, where they are gratis.

WHY are independent TDs gifted with the gargantuan sum of €41,000 every single year, the controversial leader’s allowance, without that money being subjected to rigorous auditing and oversight? Why are TDs given €750 every 18 months to buy a new phone when they could simply upgrade with their service provider for free after that time? I could go on, but you get the point. There are a dizzying, and completely anachronistic, array of dubious allowance and expense payments available to TDs that are blithely handed over by a supine State without anything remotely resembling any accountability.

In 2012, it is beyond belief that a large number of TDs and senators are still claiming unvouched expenses with no paper trail to prove that the money they are expending is being used for an appropriate purpose.

In no other area of the public service, and certainly nowhere in the private sector, would the same kind of blasé attitude to expense payments persist — especially when those expense payments can often double the salaries of TDs.

A Government insistent on implementing a vicious austerity agenda, closing 1,200 public nursing home beds, cutting tens of thousands of home help hours and slashing the meagre social welfare payments of some of the most vulnerable in our society, should be absolutely beyond reproach when it comes to divvying up the expense spoils for its own members.

Politicians should be able to claim legitimate expenses, but it’s time the old discredited system, of seemingly concocting spurious reasons to further enrich already well-paid TDs, was belatedly done away with.

We can no longer afford it and people will no longer stand for it.


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