Ministers to spend €1m on new fleet of plush cars
'Safety concerns' over mileage limit mean existing line is to be replaced
They cut social welfare, they cut the dole, but ministers are set to reward themselves with a new fleet of luxury cars at a potential cost of up to €1m, the Sunday Independent can reveal.
During his Budget speech, Finance Minister Brian Lenihan said former Taoisigh will now have to share cars and drivers, but what he didn't say was that the existing fleet for current ministers is about to be replaced.
Buried deep in the accompanying Budget documentation published on the day was a reference to the existing fleet of Mercedes, BMWs, Audis and Lexus cars, which stated they are nearing the upper mileage limit deemed safe for continuous use.
"Cars in the existing fleet have not been replaced in recent years, and many are approaching the upper mileage level deemed safe for continued use by the relevant car manufacturers," the Budget document stated.
Senior Government sources have said that they have made provision to replace the fleet in 2011, but given there is to be a General Election in the first quarter, it is likely the replacement of the existing fleet will occur once the make-up of the new government is finalised.
However, doubt has been cast upon the veracity of the "upper limit" claim by car industry experts and mechanics, who say top of the range cars pride themselves on their durability.
"As a mechanic, and an independent motor trader, with 30 years' experience in motor vehicle maintenance, I have never come across an upper mileage level statistic quoted by any manufacturer at which they deem their product to be no longer safe. Mercedes, for example, prides itself in manufacturing cars that, given proper maintenance, are capable of delivering in excess of one million miles. I doubt any of the State Mercs are approaching that mileage," said Ciaran Duffy, mechanic and motor trader.
A small number of the cars in the fleet are retained on lease, while others, like the Taoiseach's Mercedes S320, which was worth €100,000 when procured, are bought outright.
The replacement of the fleet of cars will also raise questions as to what will happen to the two Toyota Prius cars obtained for Green Ministers John Gormley and Eamon Ryan.
In his speech, Mr Lenihan said that any new cars bought will be with an engine size of 2 litres or less. However, given the number of cars required -- between 17 and 20 -- the cost to the taxpayer could top €1m, sources estimate.
Latest figures reveal the cost to the taxpayer of maintaining the fleet since 2008 is over €11m, and at present over 90 gardai are detailed to the protection of ministers. Fine Gael's Simon Coveney said he wanted to cut the cost of the fleet in half and that there should be a new code of conduct which ensures greater value for money.
Mr Lenihan also said that as a result of the reduction in cars for former office holders, the number of gardai assigned to the ministerial fleet will also be reduced.
However, not everyone is happy with the proposal for former Taoisigh to share their cars. Bertie Ahern has insisted that he must retain his S Class Mercedes car on "security grounds".
One current minister who did not want to be named said: "We couldn't do our job without the cars. Most of them are clapped out and have massive mileage at this stage anyway, so you would get nothing for them."
Each government department was asking if its minister would be willing to downgrade to a cheaper model car or enter into a pooling system. However, they replied collectively to rule out the idea and said the arrangement for chauffeur-driven cars had been "in place for many decades".
It has also emerged that an earlier proposal that Dublin-based members of the Cabinet would pool cars and drivers was dropped following complaints from several ministers.