A SPECIAL "kitchen cabinet" of advisers for Taoiseach Brian Cowen is costing the taxpayer more than €820,000 a year.
Mr Cowen yesterday revealed six special advisers are currently employed to keep him informed of business, financial and economic developments.
And he insisted there were no plans to end this lucrative arrangement, despite mounting concern over the ailing public purse. The revelation comes after it emerged the hole in the Government's finances is heading for €15bn -- double the previous worst estimate.
But speaking in the Dail, Mr Cowen insisted that the adviser arrangement was valid and would continue for the foreseeable future. His team of special advisers is made up of Joe Lennon, Peter Clinch, Gerry Steadman, Deirdre Gillane, Padraig Slyne and Brian Murphy.
The most recent figures show Mr Murphy, who was previously former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern's speechwriter, earned €128,535 in 2008.
Also in that year, Mr Lennon, who is Mr Cowen's programme manager and monitors and reports on progress in implementing the Programme for Government, earned €216,516; while Mr Clinch earned €199,853, and Mr Steadman earned €128,535.
Ms Gillane replaced former special adviser Declan Ryan in May 2010 and is tasked with helping to co-ordinate the implementation of the Programme for Government. Mr Cowen's team of special advisers costs almost €1m per year.
"I now have six special advisers, which is one fewer than at the start of this year. I understand the total annual cost is in the order of €820,000, approximately," Mr Cowen said.
"The question arises as to whether one believes the Taoiseach should have any independent advice at all. If one does not believe the Taoiseach should get such advice I presume one would not agree with any of those expenditures.
"Anyone who is knowledgeable about the Department of the Taoiseach would recognise that there is a need for advisers to assist with all of the co-ordinating work that has to be done right across Government and a need for the Taoiseach's Department to promote cross-sectoral issues, be that in health or elsewhere."
Sinn Fein's Caoimhghin O Caolain insisted there was no justification for special advisers to be brought in when the civil service already provided guidance.
Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny also queried the reason for such staff, pointing out the first appointment of advisers in 1992 had been done to iron out difficulties between Labour and Fianna Fail ministers before issues arrived at Cabinet.
Now, the trend for employing special advisers, media advisers and other personal staff for ministers was costing the taxpayer around €6.2m annually. However, Mr Cowen said his programme manager , Mr Lennon and other advisers were worth the money.
"They are committed to the task they have been given and work to advance Government policy, along with people in the public service, permanent civil servants and others, and to implement Government policy," he said.