Senators have been awarded attendance and subsistence payments for April and May this year, despite the upper house being closed at that time.
he Seanad elections took place from March 30-31, but it took 90 days before those elected gathered for a sitting on June 29.
There were no sitting days for the Seanad while the nation was in the midst of lockdown, until a Taoiseach was elected in June and the Oireachtas got to work. But 48 Seanad members elected in late March and early April still received expenses, as if it was fully functioning, for the months of April and May.
Senators shared €120,000 between them each month, or an average of more than €4,000 apiece. The Parliamentary Standard Allowance is on top of an annual salary of €68,111.
The amounts paid out in salaries and expenses contrast with the €350 a week received by hundreds of thousands of workers in the Pandemic Unemployment Payment.
The country was in the grip of lockdown in both April and May, with citizens urged to stay at home, amid tight travel restrictions.
Politicians were deemed to be essential workers, and the Dáil sat in a reduced capacity during lockdown, but the Seanad did not actually sit during this time. One current senator – Ivana Bacik of the Labour Party – has refused to take up her expenses. She is shown as receiving nil in both April and May.
The Irish Independent wrote to all senators via their Oireachtas email addresses to ask them if they would surrender or gift back their expenses for the period when the country was in Covid-19 lockdown.
Two responses had been received as of last night. Fianna Fáil senator Malcolm Byrne, who is based in Co Wexford, said he “waived all claims for travel, accommodation and subsidence in May”. He’s shown as being paid a lower sum for that month, having missed the April deadline.
“It should be pointed out that I was working on both policy issues and dealing with representations during this period,” he said, adding that he travelled to Dublin on occasion.
Senator Alice Mary Higgins, daughter of the President, said: "When that attendance is added up at the end of this year, if there are any days short due to either the coronavirus crisis or the late convening of the Seanad, I will certainly be making sure the allowance for those days goes back to the Oireachtas."
The Oireachtas said last night it was unable to identify senators who may have gifted back travel expenses, as it was "personal information".
Senators are paid the Parliamentary Standard Allowance (PSA) to defray constituency costs, expected mileage, vehicle wear and tear, subsistence and hotel bills - because the system operates automatically.
They are allocated to different bands based on their geographical distance from Dublin and monthly instalments are paid that should be reconciled at the end of the year.
Niall Blaney from Donegal, for instance, was paid €3,313.25 for both April and May. Mark Daly of Fianna Fáil, who is now the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad, was paid €3,426.67 in each month because he is from Kerry. There is no suggestion that anyone elected or appointed to either House this year has done anything wrong - TDs and senators complied with instructions to stay home.
Senator Bacik has refused to take attendance expenses on a point of principle since her election as she lives relatively close by. She did not wish to comment on the sums paid to her colleagues.
There were few responses when the Irish Independent asked about surrendering or gifting back the expenses for the relevant period.
Mr Byrne said he was gifting back, and his payment is substantially lower than that of others. An automated response from Independent senator Lynn Ruane said her office was "currently working remotely, in line with public health advice from the HSE".
The Senate is due to return on September 16, a day after the Dáil resumes. Many senators are currently on holiday. The Dáil sat for 12 days this year in the two months for which deputies were paid expenses, compared to 19 days in April and May last year.
But there were far fewer TDs attending, and hours were curtailed. Parties ran reduced lists of attendees to ensure social distancing was achieved in the Dáil, with politicians told by telephone not to turn up.
There were no Senate sittings in the same time frame, compared with nine for the upper house in the same period last year. Oireachtas expenses are newly published for the two months at the height of lockdown - and show little diminution in cost to the taxpayer.
But the Oireachtas insists it's not a matter of individual claims, but instead the spreading of expected annual costs across the year. Any anomalies in expenses awarded for April and May will have to be reconciled by the beginning of next year, a spokeswoman said.
Thus all deputies and senators were paid the going rate, as if they had been operating in any normal year.
The total outlay approaches €900,000, although officials at Leinster House emphasise that the Parliamentary Standard Allowance is an annual payment, paid monthly.
Members have until January 31, 2021, to "certify their expenditure and to reconcile attendance".
Dáil Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl is seeking the views of all parties on the security of the fobbing-in system on Kildare Street.
As 2020 is an election year, the attendance requirement for full expenses is 108 days for TDs, 91 days for elected senators, and 62 days for nominated members of the upper house. Good attendance when the Oireachtas returns from recess should see members meet the threshold.
They will then be eligible for all the payments they have received throughout the year.
Dáil expenses are running at around €450,000 a month, with senator supports about €120,000 monthly.
New Kerry TD Norma Foley was paid €4,365.41 in expenses for each of April and May, because of her distance from Dublin - a total of €8,730.82. But she now loses the expenses from the date of her appointment as Education Minister in June.
Leo Varadkar, who was just another Dublin TD before the formation of the three-party Government, was paid €1,333.33 for each month.
Ministers have higher pay and separate compensation payments.
Some TDs, such as Jim O'Callaghan (Fianna Fáil), who uses a bicycle to reach Leinster House, and Eoin Ó Broin of Sinn Féin, say they do not accept the Travel and Accommodation Allowance (TAA).
An Irish Independent survey of TDs in May found the Greens and Social Democrats were to waive at least some expenses during the crisis.
Fianna Fáil's Robert Troy said he would waive the TAA, but has also since become a junior minister.