Ministers use allowance to top up on PR services
BACKGROUND:We know about some of the perks and allowances. On top of a generous salary and expenses for travel and accommodation, Government Ministers who live outside the capital are entitled to a dual abode allowance.
And there’s the public representational allowance, which can be used to meet additional expenses such as constituency offices, mobile phones, home phones and advertising.
But we know far less about the secretarial allowance.
This is an allowance of up to €41,900 that Ministers are entitled to use for the purchase of secretarial assistance.
The way this public money is spent is not typically published.
However, records obtained by The Irish Times show that many Ministers are using this allowance to hire public relations advisers or employ constituency officials. This is despite the fact that they are also able to avail of press officers, secretarial support and – at least in the case of Cabinet Ministers – special advisers.
The money is exempt from rules governing public procurement, which specify that public bodies must publicly tender for services.
Among those using the allowances for PR services are Ministers Brian Hayes, Frances Fitzgerald, James Reilly, Lucinda Creighton, John Perry and Fergus O’Dowd.
For example, Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald and Minister for Health James Reilly spent €31,365 on the services of PR firms on hiring the Communications Clinic – whose directors are PR consultant Terry Prone and chairman of the RTÉ board Tom Savage.
In addition to PR, many are spending significant amounts on “temporary vouched employees” or “secretarial assistants”. Ministers Jan O’Sullivan, Ruairí Quinn and Alan Kelly, among others, have hired party officials to provide these services.
Minister for Arts Jimmy Deenihan was among the highest spenders, using the maximum €41,000 on hiring two temporary employees.
While he is able to use the services of a constituency office based in his department – which employs one staff member and two part-time staff – Mr Deenihan said the secretarial allowance was sorely needed. The bulk of the money, he said, was used on hiring two individuals at a cost of €41,000 to help deal with correspondence at his Listowel office in Co Kerry.
“The office is very stretched and under strain as a result of the volume of correspondence and cutbacks,” he said. “The amount of representations you receive increases when you become a minister . . . I pride myself on providing a good constituency service. I’ve always respected my constituents.”
Some Ministers, however, opted not to avail of the allowance at all.
For others who did use it, we do not know where the money was being spent. Ministers have the option of claiming €11,591 in vouched secretarial allowances.*
Some Ministers may argue that these funds are needed to help with what is a demanding and resource-intensive job. But at a time of scarce public resources, there is every chance that the manner in which it is spent, combined with a lack of transparency, may well feed even more cynicism into how our political system is funded.