TURKEYS VOTING for Christmas come to mind when the behaviour of Senators – whose very existence is under threat – is viewed in the context of their claims for expenses and allowances.
Few things infuriate the public more than a perception that elected representatives are receiving unwarranted or inflated expenses, on top of generous salaries. TDs moderated their behaviour in recent years and only one-third of Dáil members now claim unvouched expenses. Despite facing a referendum for their abolition next year, however, double that average of Senators still operate a discredited system.
Unvouched and untaxed expenses and allowances have served as a lightning rod for public anger. As recession hit and living standards fell in 2009, the late Brian Lenihan forced through cuts of 25 per cent in mileage payments and 10 per cent in other allowances. But the system of unvouched expenses, rejected by all well-run private companies, remained. Since then, the overall cost of parliamentary payments has crept upwards.
The rules that apply to Oireachtas allowances are opaque. Former senator Ivor Callely defended his travel claims from deepest Cork to Dublin on the grounds that there were “anomalies in the expenses regime”. And the High Court agreed. More recently, the use of expenses by Socialist Party leader Joe Higgins in a countrywide campaign against household and water charges has produced conflicting advice. Clerk of the Dáil Kieran Coughlan alluded to these “anomalies” last week when he suggested an independent body might, as in other countries, regulate the scope and rates of Oireachtas allowances.
The Dáil and Seanad were granted the status of a government department, with considerable financial independence, in 2005. Money flowed freely. In five years, costs rose by 65 per cent. Choices between services and cash were available. Parliamentary-based assistants could be employed or, alternatively, help in constituencies. Family members of TDs found gainful employment. At the same time, the value and cost of Oireachtas pensions has continued to rise rapidly. And while sharp reductions in ministerial and parliamentary salaries have taken place, pension costs remain elevated.
As preparations are made for an extremely difficult December budget, elected members should consider their own sheltered circumstances before demanding sacrifices from others. In particular, Senators should abandon the system of unvouched expenses.