Brian Lenihan proposed an end to tribunals in 2008 to save State money

Former minister for finance also suggested taxing child benefit as budgetary measure

Halting the tribunals to save money and taxing child benefit within six months were considered by former minister for finance Brian Lenihan in secret government memos at the height of the financial crisis in 2008.

Cabinet documents prepared for the 2009 budget are among the first batch of previously confidential State papers released to The Irish Times under revised Freedom of Information (FoI) legislation, which allows for such documentation to be made available after five years.

As the implications of the crisis became clear, Mr Lenihan stated concerns about tribunal costs in a memo to colleagues in which he outlined measures he considered necessary for budgetary consolidation.

“The Minister is concerned about the huge and ongoing costs of the various tribunals. He is particularly concerned that the duration of the tribunals means that the costs will be ongoing for some time to come,” the memo stated. “He considers that the Government should take steps, in consultation with the chairmen of the tribunals, to bring the tribunals to an end at an early date.”


Planning tribunal

The planning tribunal, which came to be known as Mahon in the last 10 of its 15 years, was established in 1997 under the chairmanship of Judge

Feargus Flood

and concluded in 2012. The Moriarty tribunal into certain payments to politicians ran from 1997 until 2011.

Mr Lenihan’s memo, stamped “secret” and dated July 7th, 2008, also reveals that he was considering whether he could take steps to mitigate the legal costs, including third-party costs.

“The Minister will be bringing a separate Memorandum to Government on this issue today to end the operation of tribunals within a short timeframe.”

Another secret department of finance document dated October 2nd, 2008, explored the option of taxing child benefit (CB) and the early childcare supplement (ECS) to achieve “significant savings”.

It revealed the Revenue Commissioners had estimated taxation of the benefits could be implemented from May 1st, 2009.

Logistical challenges

“The proposal to make CB and ECS taxable has merit on income equity grounds but poses significant logistical challenges. These, however, are not insurmountable but they are complex and would take a substantial amount of time and resources to overcome,” the memo says.

The memo described the proposal as “administratively feasible” but requiring significant changes to the tax and welfare codes.

The memo also pointed out there would be a disparity between married and cohabiting couples where one of the partners stayed at home to care for children.

In the case of the married couple, tax would be payable as the income would be treated as income of the assessable spouse. In the case of the cohabiting couple, no tax would be payable as the payment would be the income of the stay-at-home partner..

The €15 application fee for FoI requests has been abolished. However, to release the documents, an amount of €125.70 was requested by the Department of the Taoiseach. This “search and retrieval” fee was calculated on the basis of one staff member working for six hours at a rate of €20.95 an hour.

Mary Minihan

Mary Minihan

Mary Minihan is Acting Features Editor of The Irish Times