Senators in storm over €23,000 leader perk
INDEPENDENT senators last night defended a controversial €23,000 tax-free payment as pressure mounted on them to explain how they spend it.
The unvouched money is given to the 12 non-party senators and is similar to an allowance allocated to party leaders.
A powerful political watchdog yesterday questioned the transparency of the payment -- which is on top of the senators' €65,000 salary and travel expenses.
A number of the senators remained silent and refused to answer queries on how they spend the money.
These included unelected senators Katherine Zappone -- who was appointed to the Seanad by Taoiseach Enda Kenny on the recommendation of Tanaiste Eamon Gilmore -- and Fiach Mac Conghail, the director of the Abbey Theatre.
Senator Martin McAleese also declined to comment when approached by the Irish Independent last night.
But other appointed senators, such as Marie Louise-O'Donnell and Jillian van Turnhout, defended the payment and said they used the money for research.
The €23,383 is given "in connection with... parliamentary activities", according to Public Spending Minster Brendan Howlin.
Senators, unlike TDs, do not have constituencies so do not need to spend the cash on local issues.
"Well, I try to spend the money on everything to do with the senate," Ms O'Donnell said. "I spend it on research, I spend it on travel, I spend it on meetings, I spend it going around the country opening things, being there.
"It's actually in a separate account in my bank."
She also said she resigned from her position in Dublin City University (DCU) to take up her Seanad seat, which was given to her by the Taoiseach.
"I have a very, very small pension and a huge mortgage and a child at €15,000 a year in graduate medicine.
"What we're paid in the senate is €65,000 a year. (From) this I pay everything, all taxes and everything. You're left with very little and rightly so."
Jillian van Turnhout also gets another allowance for being the leader of the Independent group in the Seanad, which she estimated was around €6,000 a year.
But she said Independent senators got the €23,383 "because all the parties get the allowance to use to hire extra staff".
Senator and former athlete Eamonn Coghlan also defended the payment, which he claimed he used on "the business of the Seanad".
"For example if I was doing my research around the country on schools, on health and physical education I would have had to rent rooms in hotels and I would have had to print material and just do various things," he said.
Senator John Crown -- who was elected for the National University or Ireland constituency -- said he uses the money to pay the salary of a parliamentary assistant who helps him with policy and research, even though senators are already allowed to hire assistants. Prof Crown said he does not personally benefit from any money given to him from the Oireachtas, as he donates the after-tax portion of his Seanad salary to a cancer research charity.
He said his assistant has worked on a range of issues including pensions policy, mandatory retirement policy, smoking in cars, alcohol abuse and alcohol advertising.
Asked if he would be willing to give the perk up, Prof Crown said the State was getting good value from the services of his assistant.
Ms O'Donnell and Ms van Turnhout also said they would give it up if the payments to political parties were also removed, while Mr Coghlan said he "certainly" wouldn't if he had to incur personal expense to perform his research-related activities.
"If the Seanad was going to pay for those things whatever it was going to cost, within reason of what is available now, I would say I would give the remainder back," he said.
But Independent senators and TDs are facing a clampdown on how they spend the money. TDs are entitled to €46,000 allowance.
At the moment, they don't have to account for how the allowance is spent. Mr Howlin is currently reviewing the payment and promising to bring proposals to Government early this year on it. It is understood the minister is looking at the amount paid to parties and Independents alike and particularly the vouching for the payments.
Mr Howlin is widely expected to force the Independents to account for how the money is spent.
The State ethics watchdog, the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO), have long criticised the lack of oversight on the payment of the allowance.
Sean Fleming, Fianna Fail's public spending spokesman, questioned the payments at yesterday's Dail Public Accounts Committee (PAC) hearing and said they had to reformed.
"These payments are unvouched, untaxed," the Laois-Offaly TD said. "These payments should be vouched, independently audited and lodged with the SIPO. We need to ensure politics is open and transparent."