Thursday 22 March 2018

Minister plans crackdown on junkets for councillors

Environment Minister Phil Hogan has pledged to crack down on junkets
Environment Minister Phil Hogan has pledged to crack down on junkets

Paul Melia and Shane Phelan

A MAJOR crackdown on expenses payments to city and county councillors will be put in place by the end of the month, the Irish Independent has learnt.

The Government plans to dramatically reduce the amounts which can be claimed by local politicians to attend conferences and educational seminars, amid growing concerns that the current system is open to abuse.

Environment Minister Phil Hogan has confirmed that the changes will be in place by June 1 when new councils are in place, and that "poor quality conferences" will become a thing of the past.

"Abuse of conference attendance has in the past reflected badly on elected members – to the extent that a cap had to be placed on total expenses paid," he said.

"I intend to significantly further reduce the ceiling on expenses for conferences, and I intend that attendance at poor quality conferences for the sake of it will cease."

The move comes after the Irish Independent has repeatedly highlight the massive spend on conferences incurred by the country's 883 city and county councillors, and concerns about the quality of some events.

In many cases, councillors did not attend conferences in their locality but instead chose to travel to events farther afield, often at the other side of the country.

In 2012 and 2013, local government bodies incurred a €3m bill sending local politicians to conferences across the country.

It is expected that the new rules will not only limit the amounts which can be claimed – currently capped at €4,700 a year per councillor – but will also restrict how far they can travel from home.

Measures are also being put in place to vastly improve the quality of conferences on offer.

The Government plans to have two funds for elected members – an education and training budget, and a sum for conferences.

"There will be two types of training – the first will be in governance issues which people sitting on a board of directors would have, which would include good governance practices.

"Then there will be training in planning, housing and specific areas. Some would be delivered by professional bodies such as the Irish Planning Institute or Royal Institute of the Architects of Ireland."

Other changes include:

* The Association of Irish Local Government, which represent elected members, will help run courses with assistance from the Department of the Environment and city and county managers.

* There will be a "rigorous focus" on education and training.

* Only courses being run by approved bodies will be sanctioned.

* There will be a "very significant" cut in the annual allowance, but the amount has yet to be decided.

In addition, training courses will be held on a regional basis to help minimise travel and subsistence payments.

Foreign travel, which cost €200,000 in 2012 and 2013, may be examined but it is not considered a priority at the moment given the relatively minor sums involved.

One outspoken critic of the current system, Cork Sinn Fein councillor Chris O'Leary, claimed few councillors attended conferences in their own local authority area.

He added that some councillors could manipulate Government guidelines so they could spend more on conferences than technically allowed.

Each councillor has a spending cap of €4,700 in a given year for attending conferences.

But Mr O'Leary said that if one councillor did not spend their allocated budget, it had become the practice for another to appropriate the unspent funds and add it to their own conference budget.

It is believed that the changes will involve better value for money for the taxpayer because they will equip councillors with the skills needed to fulfil their roles. The measures will be in place by June 1. The types of training required will be decided over the coming months.

Individual councils decide every year which conferences councillors are entitled to attend. In addition, politicians sitting on regional authorities and assemblies can also claim conference expenses.

Irish Independent

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