Big Phil's job sees him go global

Overseas trips by the environment minister and his advisers have cost taxpayers close to €133,000 in two years

Phil Hogan

Nick Webb

ENVIRONMENT minister Phil Hogan and some of his advisers have jetted from Durban in South Africa to Shanghai in China and Rio de Janiero in Brazil, clocking up bills of €133,000 since he took office in March 2011. Hogan has now flown the equivalent of four and a half times around the globe.

Hogan's travels – which have included a business class trip to Shanghai – have seen him fly over 181,000 km in the last two years: that's almost halfway to the moon. Hogan, widely tipped to exit the Cabinet for a plum post in the European Commission, has created over 12 tonnes of Co2 emissions from his 160,000km in flights on behalf of the Government in his two years in office. That's more than the 7,700 people who live on the islands of St Helena, Ascenscion and Tristan de Cunha in the mid Atlantic.

The Fine Gael minister and his advisers amassed bills of close to €133,000 on flights, hotels, subsistence, priority lounges, restaurants and beverages which were paid by the State for 31 trips abroad. The cost of Hogan and his advisers' trips around the globe are the equivalent to more than 422 households paying the average €315 bill for the controversial local property tax being fronted by the minister.

"The Minister and the Department are very aware of the costs incurred due to business conducted abroad. These trips are undertaken as part of the normal business agenda of the Department and the size of delegations (which, in the main comprise officials of the Department rather than advisers, as stated) and the costs are kept to an absolute minimum at all times. Economy flights are the norm and 95 per cent plus of these trips have been economy class," according to a department spokesman. "Trips abroad are kept to a minimum and the Minister only travels abroad on official business where a Ministerial presence is appropriate. The need to keep carbon emissions to a minimum is always a priority for the Minister and the Department."

Files released to the Sunday Independent under the Freedom of Information Act by Hogan's department reveal spending from the four corners of the world.

The minister's hotel bill at the Sheraton in Rio, overlooking the famous Ipanema beach, touched €1,659.66 for a four-night stay in June last year. Hogan made the 18,300km round trip to attend the Rio+20 conference. The cost of flights to Rio, accommodation in the Sheraton, airport lounge, travel and subsistence claims for Hogan and three of his advisers hit €16,299. This included a bill for €842.66 under the "ministerial entertainment" category, for a dinner in the Churrascaria Porcao Pi restaurant in Rio, which specialises in meats ranging from beef to exotic birds and alligator.

"The €800 in respect of a dinner in Brazil was for the full Irish delegation attending the UN Rio+20 conference – it should be noted that each of the Department's members of the delegation reduced their individual subsequent T&S claims in respect of their share of the amount involved," according to the department.

Just over six months into his brief, Hogan and 15 civil servants and officials made their way to the COP 17 Climate Change conference in Durban, South Africa – a 28,600km round trip, costing €46,000. Hogan's British Airways flight cost €2,742.89.

The group stayed in the Blue Waters Hotel in Durban, with Hogan's bill coming to €712.12. Overall, the hotel bill for the Irish delegation hit €25,281.89. While the travellers spent €73.14 on public transport in South Africa, they also spent nearly four times as much on taxis. The €46,000 bill – which was shared by other Government departments and agencies – included a reception hosted by the 'Climate Change section', costing €803.

Last September, Hogan donned his flight socks for a long-haul trip to China, where he flew business class on KLM to Shanghai as well as 'premium' class on Chinese domestic flights from Shanghai to Suzhou. Hogan's flights cost €3,556.69, with flights for two officials adding over €5,300 to the taxpayers' bill.

"On the Chinese trip, as the Minister was going directly on his arrival at the airport to a meeting after a 10/11 hour flight, he needed to use some of the flight time to get some sleep so that he was properly rested in advance of his first engagement, as he was not going to have the opportunity to go to his hotel for a rest period beforehand," according to the department. The travellers stayed in the five-star Shangri La hotel in Suzhou and the Portman Ritz Carlton in Shanghai. Including subsistence, car hire and other expenses, the whole trip cost €12,518 – the equivalent of the average property tax for 40 households. Documents describe the trip as "official business in China".

Hogan's controversial trip to Doha in December last year was to attend the COP18 UN Climate Change conference. Flights for the visit cost €1,650 with a further €2,837 in subsistence claims from Hogan and his two fellow travellers.

During February, Hogan and three advisers went to Nairobi in Tanzania to attend the worthy sounding 27th Session of UNEP Governing Council/Global ministerial Environment Forum. The flights and subsistence bill topped €7,469. No accommodation costs were listed.

"You will appreciate that the Department has responsibility for a wide range of functions; local government, community development, environmental matters, including climate change, much of which is managed at EU and UN levels, with an inevitable travel requirement to key meetings and conferences where it is important that Ireland plays its part in addressing key environmental challenges," according to Hogan's spokesman.

The taxpayer paid for Hogan's entry into exclusive 'priority pass' airport lounges. After just five visits to exclusive airport business lounges in his first year in office, Hogan and his advisers spent €504 to gain entry to priority lounges in Dublin, Heathrow, Rome, Barcelona and Cardiff on 10 occasions last year.

"The use of business class lounges is kept to a minimum – to the extent that such facilities are used, it is primarily for the purposes of using the time in airports to send e-mails, study briefs, participate in conference calls where required and to keep in contact with the office," the department said.

Flights to the EU Council of Ministers in Luxembourg and Brussels are refundable from from Europe's coffers. These cost over €11,000 on top of the department's travel bill of nearly €133,000.

The files show that the department spent €739.77 at Clerys, Elvery's and Celtic Note on presents for Hogan's 'official business in China' in September 2012. The gifts included a €149.95 'Genesis Clash of the Ash' for Shanghai's vice mayor Shen Jun, an €89 Newbridge silver inkwell and pen set for Li Ganje, vice minister for environmental protection, a Riverdance Live in Beijing DVD and a Chieftains in China CD for other officials.

"It should also be noted that Ireland assumed the EU Presidency on 1 January 2013. This has resulted in a significant additional workload for the Minister and the Department, and for much of the lead-in period, particularly over the course of 2012, additional travel requirements arose in order to ensure that adequate preparations were made for the assumption of our Presidency responsibilities," the department added.