Breakdown of public funding of parties offers incomplete picture

Opinion: Sipo renewed its call for legislative change to require parties to publish full accounts

‘SIPO used the occasion to draw attention again to the limited nature of the information which the parties are required to provide.’ Photograph: Eric Luke

‘SIPO used the occasion to draw attention again to the limited nature of the information which the parties are required to provide.’ Photograph: Eric Luke

Sat, May 24, 2014, 01:01

In recent months, when investigating the expenditure of the Rehab Group and the Central Remedial Clinic, the Public Accounts Committees and others have asserted a right to do so on the basis that these bodies are at least part-funded by the State. The other justification for an entitlement to closely examine the finances of these bodies is that they are also funded by donations from the general public.

Politicians have been less enthusiastic, however, about insisting on transparency in the use of public funds by another category of organisations which are State-funded and which receive public donations, namely political parties themselves.

This week, the Standards in Public Office Commission (Sipo) reported on the State funding paid over to political parties last year and also published the returns which political parties made to Sipo on how they spent that money. The commission used the occasion to draw attention again to the limited nature of the information which the parties are required to provide.

Sipo also renewed

its call for legislative change to require parties to publish full accounts. The first line of funding detailed by Sipo this week is known as the “party leaders’ allowance”.

This is a grant paid annually to the qualifying party in relation to expenses arising from parliamentary activities, including research. A qualifying party is defined in the legislation as a political party, registered in the Register of Political Parties, which contested the last general election or any subsequent byelections and which had at least one member elected to Dáil Éireann or elected or nominated to Seanad Éireann.

The money paid under the party leaders’ allowance is calculated by reference to the number of members of the party elected to Dáil Éireann or elected or nominated to Seanad Éireann.

If a qualifying party is in government, however, the amount they get in respect of their members of the Dáil only is reduced by one-third. This is to reflect the fact that about one-third of government TDs are office holders who are separately provided with salaries for advisers and staffing for constituency work from within their departments.

Parliamentary activity In order to balance funding under this heading, non-party members of the Dáil each received €41,152 to fund parliamentary activity and every Independent Senator gets €23,383 in similar funding.

The second form of grant given to political parties is exchequer funding paid under section 20 of the Electoral Act 1997. Under this, each of the four larger parties got €126,974 in 2014 and, in addition, got a share of a further fund of €4,948,202 divided up by reference to the first-preference votes they received at the last general election.

To qualify for funding under the Electoral Acts, a political party must be included in the Register of Political Parties and must have obtained at least 2 per cent of the first-preference votes at the last Dáil general election.

So, while the Socialist Party and People Before Profit each received some relatively small funding under the party leaders’ allowance they do not get any under this other heading.

In total, Fine Gael received just under €5 million under these two funding lines in 2013. The Labour Party got a total of €3 million, Sinn Féin received about €1.75 million and Fianna Fáil got just over €2.9 million. Under the Act, the parties must provide a short report showing that the expenditure was audited, confirming that it was not used for election or referendum purposes and stating how much of the money was spent under specified headings.

So vague and general are the headings under which they can categorise the expenditure, however, that we only get a partial picture of how they spend it.

It is impossible to compare like with like on how the parties used the money. That task is further complicated because the parties are likely to choose to spend this State funding, on which they have to make these public returns, on less sensitive activity, while diverting donations or income the party draws from membership to the politically more sensitive expenditure.

Newspaper expenditure That said, there are a few interesting details. Fianna Fáil spent €24,000 of its party leaders’ allowance on newspapers, which seems curious since most newspapers are now available online.

Fine Gael last year spent more than €400,000 of the exchequer funding on structural and renovations work on its party headquarters on Mount Street.

Labour used €140,000 of the leaders’ allowance on national conferences. Fine Gael and Sinn Féin used pro rata amounts on their ardfheiseanna interestingly under the heading “policy formulation”.

Fine Gael also spent a staggering €332,000 of its party leaders’ allowance on market research, much of it, I suspect, on the Seanad referendum campaign.

The money detailed in the reports published this week is separate again from the hundreds of thousands of euro which other legislation provides may be reimbursed by the exchequer to many of the candidates who competed in yesterday’s European elections and byelections.

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