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Wednesday 29 January 2020

No more junkets for Central Bank wives

Spouses to pay their own way, insists new governor

Shane Phelan and Aine Kerr

THE new governor of the Central Bank last night banned the practice of using taxpayers' money to pay for trips abroad by the spouses of staff members.

The dramatic move came after a day of sustained criticism for the bank after it was revealed that it used public money to bring dozens of employees' spouses on trips in 2007 and 2008.

Trinity College professor Patrick Honohan, who took the governor's job four months ago, said he had not been aware the organisation had been covering the cost of so many spouse trips.

"While some of the expenditure could perhaps have been justifiable in the past, the practice does not seem appropriate in the present circumstances," he said.

Prof Honohan's decision comes as a remarkable climbdown for the Central Bank, which had initially staunchly defended the trips.

The announcement was made within hours of the Dail spending watchdog, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) signalling it planned to investigate the matter.

The cross-party committee is now set to question Central Bank officials about the controversial practice in April or May.


PAC chairman Bernard Allen said the committee would also be examining other state agencies that covered travel costs for people other than their own staff members.

In a statement last night, Mr Honohan said that, between 2007 and 2009, spouses had accompanied Central Bank staff at foreign business meetings on 71 occasions. The cost to the taxpayer was €67,450, he said.

Of these trips, 62 were within Europe with an average cost of €435.

The other nine trips were long-haul journeys involving business-class flights and had an average cost of €4,515.

In 2007 and 2008, the spouses of 35 staff members travelled by invitation to 49 separate meetings. Last year, the spouses of 17 staff members travelled by invitation to 13 international meetings.

The bulk of the travel was to Frankfurt in Germany for meetings connected to the European Central Bank (ECB).

Mr Honohan's announcement does not mean that spouses will no longer be allowed to travel to foreign events. It just means they will now have to pay their own way if they wish to attend.

Department of Finance guidelines state that spouses can travel with their partners "in exceptional circumstances" and where it is has been "certified that attendance is in the public interest".

The Central Bank said it has been the norm for the ECB to invite spouses, usually once a year. But Fine Gael finance spokesman Richard Bruton said the bank had behaved in "a cavalier fashion" with taxpayers' money and people were understandably angry.

Meanwhile, the Comptroller & Auditor General (C&AG), John Buckley, said yesterday he regretted the wording of a report last week that sparked the spouse-flights controversy.

The report gave misleading information about the travel records of one unnamed organisation, later revealed to be the Central Bank.

Mr Buckley's report had stated that 52 spouses had gone on one single trip. It later transpired this was incorrect and several trips were involved.

Mr Buckley admitted the original information published by his office had not been the subject of an independent audit and was "wrongly interpreted" as a single event.

"I regret the fact that this happened and that politicians and the press . . . were misled," he said.

The report revealed that, across the 20 organisations, around €1.5m was spent on 4,000 flights for non-staff members, with none of the money being reimbursed.

Irish Independent

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