Monday 22 October 2018

No audit for 317,000 euro payment to president, accounts committee told

An allowance of up to 317,000 euro a year has been paid to each president since 1998 that is not audited, taxed or scrutinised.

Michael D Higgins (Maxwell Photography/PA)
Michael D Higgins (Maxwell Photography/PA)

By Aoife Moore, Press Association

An allowance of up to 317,000 euro a year has been paid to each president since 1998 that is not audited, taxed or scrutinised, the Dail’s public accounts committee has been told.

The committee, which is examining the expenditure of the Office of the President, heard from The Comptroller and Auditor General Seamus McCarthy on Tuesday that the money was an allowance, not a salary, and he could not definitively state what it was for.

Fianna Fail TD Marc MacSharry asked:”Is this a payment on the blind that no one passes any remote oversight on what it’s spent on? Is that the case?”

Mr MacCarthy replied he did not know, but the law states it is a payment paid to each president and is not surrenderable at the end of the year.

“It’s bizarre to me that public money is given out annually with no responsibility to anyone with no audit,” Mr MacSharry said.

“It was remiss of previous PACs to not hold this meeting before, it’s timely and informative and I can think of 317,000 reasons why it was worthwhile.”

The allowance is paid on top of the 249,000 euro a year salary paid to the President.

Ireland’s highest ranking civil servant, Martin Fraser, whose responsibilities include being accounting officer for the President’s office, appeared before the Public Accounts Committee with Mr McCarthy to explain the processes and expenses of the Aras an Uachtarain.

The decision to examine presidential expenses was made after questions were raised over the summer over claims of extravagant spending by the office including expensive hotel suites on state visits.

The committee also heard that the personnel charged with auditing of the office did not meet for over three years.

Mr Fraser was accused of passing the buck and bad governance when he admitted the committee did not meet from 2014 to 2018, but claimed there were extenuating circumstances.

The internal audit committee was formed in 2014 when Mr Fraser appointed a chair and two other members to oversee the accounts.

Due to a significant personal issue, the chair had to be recused from his duties, no substitute chair was ever appointed and the committee did not meet again until February 2018.

Members from across the political spectrum were quick to criticise Mr Fraser’s decisions.

When Mr MacSharry asked who does their job when they’re not available, neither of the men could offer an answer.

“Is that proactive? If someone isn’t there the work stops – do you appreciate that’s a failing?  It’s poor practice of a way to run the country,” he said.

“It’s a matter of public funds, I would hate to think that the work of the Oireachtas would stop because of the absence of one person.

“The fact is when the chairman was missing, we didn’t do anything for nearly three years.”

Mr Fraser added that he took great assurance from Comptroller and Auditor General, who provided end of year audit reports in the absence of the committee.

Mr Fraser also received criticism for a letter he wrote to the committee stating that any investigation into the president’s expenses could be considered unconstitutional, which some members of the committee took offence at.

Mr Fraser questioned the political ramifications of examining the president’s expenditure so close to the election on October 26.

He noted the constitution, which states the president is not answerable to either house of the Oireachtas or any court for the exercise of his office.

Independent TD Catherine Connolly said that the office of the president should be held to the same standard as other institutions and that Tuesday’s meeting exposed gaps in governance.

“Every week we have this committee and put various organisations like Gardai through this, it would be unfair not to put president’s office through it too,” she said.

“We’ve looked at processes and you’ve admitted that some processes leave something to be desired.”

Mr Fraser said he was keen to stress he was not interfering, but that he was paying close attention to the constitution.

He said: “I wasn’t interfering with committee, I was making points it was my job to make.

“The presidency is above politics, my job is different in the Aras than it would be in the Oireachtas.

“The president himself is open to scrutiny and that will come out in election campaign.

“I’m just very careful about the constitution.”

The committee also heard that although it is stated that the president’s office expenditure is 3.2 million euro a year, it is closer to 8.2 million euro when operational and other costs are considered.

Press Association

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