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Saturday 23 September 2017

Higgins in U-turn as he vows to fight travel claim

Michael Brennan Deputy Political Editor

SOCIALIST Party leader Joe Higgins is going to fight a legal battle with the Leinster House authorities after they ruled he had to repay almost €1,000 in travel expenses.

It came after three days of controversy regarding the use of travel expenses by him and two other left-wing TDs as they travelled throughout the country canvassing against the €100 household charge.

The Leinster House authorities received legal advice that it was not possible for TDs to use their travel expenses for such purposes, and that the money would have to be repaid.

Mr Higgins responded by declaring that he would seek his own legal advice. He said he would only repay the money if a "clear body of legal opinion" established that it was wrong.

It represented a clear U-turn on the statement he had made a mere seven hours earlier about his €935 travel expenses bill for attending nationwide anti-household charge meetings in the past six months.

"If the legal advice sought by the Oireachtas Commission says that costs for travel to public events outside of Dublin are not contemplated by the monthly Oireachtas Travel Allowance, then this amount will be restored to the fund," he said in his statement.

Mr Higgins tried to justify his position by complaining the authorities had not met his request for a meeting before releasing the legal advice. He has complained that he was the victim of a "smear campaign" and has insisted it was entirely legitimate to use the travel expenses in such a manner.

But last night, the Oireachtas Commission, which is in charge of Leinster House, said it had received definitive legal advice to put an end to the matter.

"The only specific travel allowances which were reckonable for TDs were those incurred travelling to and from Leinster House and within their constituency," it said.

And it went on to clearly state that any TDs who had not used their travel expenses for this purpose would have to repay them at the end of the year.

Mr Higgins, his colleague Clare Daly and United Left Alliance TD Joan Collins have previously promised to repay travel expenses claimed for journeys outside their constituencies if they were required to do so by the Oireachtas Commission. Ms Daly and Ms Collins could not be contacted for comment last night.

Mr Higgins's detailed breakdown of his travel expenses showed that he had attended 22 anti-household charge meetings over the past six months. It showed that he spent €935 on fuel, train tickets and accommodation in B&Bs. The highest cost was €109 for travel and accommodation to a meeting in Castlebar. But he spent just €11 on fuel to drive to Naas in Co Kildare, €14 for a journey to Wicklow and €17 for a trip to a meeting in Navan.

All TDs are paid an annual travel and accommodation allowance, ranging from €12,000 to €37,000, depending on how far they live from the Dail. They have to clock in for 120 days in the Dail to claim the full payment, but do not have to provide receipts or invoices.

The Oireachtas Commission said last night that all allowances being paid to TDs were being reviewed by Public Expenditure Minister Brendan Howlin.

Irish Independent

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