Business Irish

Sunday 21 January 2018

Wasted: where your tax money goes

The Comptroller & Auditor General's report on State spending only scratches the surface of the orgy of inefficiency and waste at quangos, agencies and government departments, writes Nick Webb

Whatever about the twittering, there's a savage amount of frittering going on in the corridors of power as the brotherhood of quangos, State agencies and government departments continues to waste our tax dollars with gay abandon.

While the remarkable €1.5m Fas land deal in Offaly or the €2.3m Skills Programme junkets and the €340,000 spent on an as yet unpublished official history of the Office of Public Works have grabbed most of the headlines, last week's Comptroller & Auditor General's report on public expenditure revealed that State spending continues to run amok in an orgy of inefficiency and waste. It is rampant in the machinery for running the country.

Three years into the recession, the Government has indeed cut back on spending on roads, hospitals, schools and playgrounds. But life continues for some public servants. Sure enough, some things have been chopped. Junkets and banquets have been curtailed. Not stopped. Just curtailed a bit. The capital's finest restaurants are still being frequented by our top civil servants.

Spending on consultants has been pegged back a bit. The Department of the Taoiseach stepped up to the mark by spending absolutely nothing on "value for money" or policy reviews in 2009 whereas the Department of Education blew €906,000 on these reviews.

Despite the public sector pay cuts, bonuses and special payments were widespread, ranging from €2.4m paid out in "gratuities" in the dysfunctional Health Service Executive (HSE). The Department of Social and Family Affairs paid out €212,455 on "merit payments" to 24 people and 22 teams in 2009. The Revenue Commissioners lashed out €252,800 to 621 staff members, with €48,459 paid by the Central Statistics Office (CSO) -- presumably for adding stuff up correctly. The Department of Enterprise gave out a €250 voucher to someone who came up with a catchy name for a new staff suggestion scheme. The Department of the Taoiseach and Department of Agriculture paid no bonus or merit awards in 2009. However, the Taoiseach's department had a "maximum individual payment" of €164,566 for overtime and allowances.

Wages and running costs of government departments, agencies and their protected quangos are astronomical. The jumbo wage bill at the Revenue Commissioners is almost €330m per year, or €70m more than the €259m in salaries paid at the Prison Service. The former Department of Social and Family Affairs had the biggest wage bill of any ministry, coming in at €237m in 2009, followed by the Department of Agriculture at €226m. The Department of Foreign Affairs trails these two behemoths with a wage bill of €97.6m. How many diplomats do we need? And why can't the IDA or the tourism authority do a big whack of the work?

Some of the smaller outfits also cost crazy money. International Cooperation (nope we hadn't heard of them either) had a wage bill of €19.33m in 2009, with the CSO's pay bill hitting a staggering €38.54m or the Property Registration Authority splurging on wages and salaries of €30.2m last year.

While the bailout of the banks has cost €24.3bn so far, some of the other big ticket items of government spending are quite staggering. The HSE's medical cards scheme cost €2.75bn. It was the biggest non banking bit of spending by the State in 2009. Grants to organisations and voluntary and joint board hospitals were the next biggest cheque, costing the taxpayer €2.52bn, followed closely by the €2.49bn spend on child benefits. You'd almost be able to bail out AIB for that kind of money.

The running of these empires hoovers up our money. The Revenue Commissioners shelled out €69m on photocopiers, staplers and other office equipment last year. The Department of Social and Family Affairs was also a big spender on office equipment, blowing €30.6m. New Minister Eamon O Cuiv has his hands full there.

But Micheal Martin's Department of Foreign Affairs was the real standout, with a spend of more than €21m on "office machinery and other office supplies and related services" . That's the bones of €120m on biros, chairs, paper clips and computers from just three departments in a year.

The Department of Foreign Affairs is also a massive spender on stamps and telephone bills. Last year alone it blew nearly €8.4m on post and telecoms. That's almost three times as much as it costs to run the operations of President Mary McAleese. The Department of Social and Family Affairs spent €18.8m on post and telecoms last year. Has nobody heard of Skype or email?

But the C&AG's report only shows so much. You really need to go deeper to reveal how our money is being spent. Under the Freedom of Information Act, the Sunday Independent obtained details of all spending on goods and services above €500 at the Department of Social Protection for the month of July 2010. The 10 pages of documents show that €12,362 was paid to watercooler company All Water Systems, with another €2,020 paid to Tipperary Natural Mineral water. That's the equivalent of all the tax paid by someone on €50,000 per year.

Another €4,961 went to Ballsbridge gardening firm Setanta Landscapes, with €2,000 going to gardening and landscaping firm Ardagh Villages Landscapes and €1,931 to potted plant company GreenLive Interior Landscaping. Almost €8,000 was spent at curtain and interiors firm Curtain Cottage with about €4,990 spent at Sligo book and art shop Keaneys. Equality and Diversity consultants Maire Halpin & Associates picked up €950 under the staff training and development budget. Around €1,280 was spent at National Radio Cabs in July. Close to €95,000 was spent on "furniture and fittings", according to the documents.

The really big money was lashed out on consultants and outside contractors with €907,000 paid to IT and management consultancy firms Bearing Point and Accenture. More than €626,000 was spent on computer equipment, with more than €502,000 in bills for envelopes and other printing. Nearly €950,000 was spent on "other office machinery" largely to Biometric Card services, the company which will provide the controversial social welfare ID card

We also received details of spending at the Department of Tourism, Culture and Sport, now headed by Mary Hanafin. This year alone it has spent €55,600 on boxes with the Archival Box Company and another €3,762 on specialist painting firm Pollock Decorators. Kerry interiors firm Medor Blinds bagged €1,621 in April, with €900 spent at watercooler firm All Water Systems. Rat catchers Premier Pest Control earned €856 while a fridge company was paid €599.17.

Previous years' spending at the department saw €57,000 splashed out at the Archival Box Company in 2009, and €54,675 in 2008.

There is an nonsensical mishmash of different contractors and service providers at the department. Even for telecommunications alone, the department has used Eircom, O2, Smart telecom, Vodafone, Lan Communications and Gerry McDonald Communications. Similar situations exist in other areas of departmental spending, with a raft of different cleaning, maintenance and security firms all being paid.

If you multiply the overlapping suppliers or inefficient procurement of services across all the government departments and state bodies, the bills become quite staggering.

Given that up to €4bn in cuts are coming around the corner in the Budget, there's a massive opportunity to streamline government services and improve efficiency.

Sunday Independent

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