Presidential expenses: annual allowance of €317,000 is not audited

PAC member says unspecified allowance could be perceived as a ‘slush fund’

Government General Secretary Martin Fraser has blamed the pain of a broken elbow after TD Catherine Connolly accused the civil servant of "putting his eyes to heaven" during a committee hearing over the costs of the President’s office.

 

An annual allowance of €317,000 provided to the President is not subject to audit, a meeting of the Public Account Committee (PAC) has heard.

The unspecified allowance, which one member said could be perceived as a “slush fund” has been paid to Presidents, at its current level, since 1998 from central funds controlled by the Department of Finance.

Comptroller and Auditor General Seamus McCarthy and Secretary General at the Department of the Taoiseach Martin Fraser told a PAC meeting on Tuesday the allowance was made under the Presidential Establishment Act 1938 and there was no direction on how it was spent.

“I have no doubt it is spent in a very good manner,” said Fianna Fáil TD Marc MacSharry, who raised the issue. “The point is that it is not audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General.

He said there was the possibility of it “even the perception of it, of being a slush fund”.

“Is it reasonable to say, and I know my language is a bit flippant sometimes, that ‘on the blind’ nobody has any oversight, or any notion or idea on what it is spent on?”

Fellow committee member, Kate O’Connell of Fine Gael, criticised Mr MacSharry’s use of the phrase “slush fund,” saying it was “deliberately inflammatory”. Mr MacSharry denied this.

While the annual allowance is not subject to scrutiny, Mr McCarthy said Mr Higgins’ predecessor Mary McAleese had returned €357,000 in 2011 following her two terms, totalling 14 years.

Asked later about the allowance, a spokesman for the President said it has been available to all Presidents in the last 80 years and has not changed since 1998.

“This allowance is used to meet additional costs not covered elsewhere in the President’s Vote, for instance costs related to hospitality for the 20,000 people that visit Áras an Uachtaráin each year, state dinners for visiting Heads of State and for the hundreds of events hosted by the President at Áras an Uachtaráin each year,” he said.

Testy exchanges

Earlier, there were testy exchanges between members of the committee and Mr Fraser over costs in the President’s office.

Independent TD Catherine Connolly clashed with Mr Fraser over the lack of auditing within the office and the fact that an internal audit committee set up in 2014 did not meet until this year.

Mr Fraser told the committee the audit committee had been set up but had not met for three years because of particular circumstances, namely because the chairman was indisposed.

He disclosed that a new chairman, Joe Hamill, was appointed in February this year and had met three times. He was unable to tell Ms Connolly the dates on which it had met.

Ms Connolly criticised the lack of audit meetings, saying there was no internal audit function within that time.

When Mr Fraser said he relied on the Comptroller and Auditor General, she said that was the end of year audit, and not the internal one and so did not matter.

“Don’t throw your eyes up to heaven,” she said to Mr Fraser.

He replied he was not doing that, rather “wincing because of a broken elbow”. (Mr Fraser is wearing a sling).

He said the situation where there was no functioning audit committee for over three years was “sub optimal. I do not deny that.”

Mr Fraser said he would examine the possibility of appointing a vice-chair to take over meetings if the chair again became indisposed.

Before the hearing began, PAC chairman Seán Fleming warned the other eight members present questions relating to the President himself were “not in order”.

Mr McCarthy said the costs of the President’s Office in 2016 were €3.6 million of which €1.15m was allotted to centenarians who received a bonus on reaching 100 years of age.

He said the surplus recorded was €287,000.