Political patronage still controls the purse strings


ANALYSIS:Funding for capital projects like roads and schools should be allocated on the basis of fairness and need, writes JANE SUITER

WHEN BRIAN Cowen stood up on the back of a truck in his constituency after being elected Taoiseach he treated the assembled throng to a song: Ber Cowen he is a TD me boys, Ber Cowen he is a TD. He got Clara a swimming pool because it isn’t by the sea. He was being more revealing about a fault line in our society than he might have realised at the time. It’s not just swimming pools, and Tullamore did get a very fine example a couple of years later, but roads and schools are more examples where political patronage rather than need and fairness predict the destination of much funding.

This type of spending where politicians direct funds home to their constituencies in a bid to win favour, and hence re-election, is present in various forms throughout the world. But we have our own special type in Ireland. Here it is individual, powerful ministers in charge of the purse strings who direct funds to their own constituencies.

We have long known that there is certainly partisan spending in the sports capital programme, which allocates funds to sports and community clubs using National Lottery funding. John Considine in UCC first uncovered this looking at county allocations. But it goes deeper than this. Detailed econometric work looking at a range of capital spending projects by constituency rather than county reveals that powerful Irish ministers skew large amounts of funding to their home constituencies.

In sports funding, the powerful are the minister for sport and the minister for finance. Clubs in their constituencies receive more money in total, receive a greater amount per application, are more likely to make successful applications, and more likely to have more successful applications than others.

Overall, clubs in the minister for finance’s constituency can expect to receive more than €70,000 in funding, compared with €63,700 elsewhere. Over €1 million in additional funding is made available to the constituency of the minister for sport and the minister for finance each year, or €2.5 million, compared with €1.5 million elsewhere.

Of course, a sizeable amount of funding is provided through national and regional projects, which are not allocated across counties on an equal basis. Therefore, a large national or regional grant could significantly skew the per-capita grant allocation for some counties. A detailed econometric analysis of the data controlled for this, along with population levels, and the pattern of individually powerful ministers directing funds home, remained intact.

It goes deeper than this. Schools funding is also a key area for credit-claiming for national politicians of all hues, while the volume of parliamentary questions asked of the Department of Education is one of the largest of any department.

An econometric examination of all capital grants to primary schools from 2001-2007 found a similar pattern of powerful ninisters delivering locally. Making allowances for the number of primary school children and the growth rate of the relevant age cohort, the constituencies of the powerful ministers again emerge as clear beneficiaries with the amount going to the constituency of the minister for finance significant at the highest level.

The mean annual primary school funding for all constituencies over the period was just over €2.3 million, rising to €3.2 million in the Minister for Education’s constituency and over €6 million in Kildare North and Laois-Offaly, the constituencies of Charlie McCreevy and Brian Cowen.

From 2005-2007 some €1,400 per primary school child was allocated in Cowen’s constituency. At the same time, the bottom 20 constituencies received less than €1,000 per child and a good deal of north Dublin less than €500 per child.

Potholes are another major credit-claiming opportunity for TDs and indeed in roads funding a similar pattern emerges. The constituents of Martin Cullen in Waterford are no doubt delighted with the new ring road and those of Dick Roche in Wicklow are likely equally pleased with the Wicklow relief road opened recently – but those in Dublin or Louth who generally win less funding may be less pleased.

Once again while allowing for grant type, population levels and other variables, the constituency of the Minister for the Environment receives a statistically significant amount of additional funding, although this is one area where the Minister for Finance does not appear to benefit.

Ministers of course say that this is what they are expected to do and that they have a right to make representations on behalf of their constituents. But we need to ask whether scarce capital resources should be allocated according to need, rather than according to the personal representations which the Minister might have to make to himself as decision maker.

The randomness of much capital spending is hardly surprising given that the departments involved often have little evidence on which to base decisions. Both schools and sports grants are “demand-led schemes”. In other words only those who apply shall receive. This would appear to translate into whoever shouts loudest shall receive, with the minister for finance having the loudest voice of all.

A National Sports Facilities Programme which has been on the cards since 2005 along with a review of all sports facilities, due in mid 2007, is still nearing completion, according to the department.

More perplexingly, the Department of Education simply has no database of schools’ accommodation, despite calls for one in report after report since at least 1988, although in recent months it has introduced a mapping system which should match future school building with population growth.

However, without the database it cannot rank all primary schools in terms of objective need for capital funding.

Secretary general of the department Brigid McManus told the Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee that it would be highly desirable to be able to quote from an inventory but that an inventory of just Co Kildare in 2002 cost €1 million in fees. Architects have said a complete database of every primary school in the country could be finalised for about this amount.

At a time when the State’s finances are under unprecedented pressure and the capital budget is a likely target, it is imperative that all public money is spent, and seen to be spent, fairly and without bias. It is imperative that all monies be allocated on the basis of evidence and further checks introduced to ensure that policy goals are realised.

Jane Suiter, a former Irish Timesbusiness journalist, recently completed her PhD at Trinity College, Dublin, entitled “Chieftains delivering: political determinants of capital spending in Ireland”. She now works in research at the Geary Institute in UCD

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