Wednesday 14 November 2018

Aras gets €55m but has not faced internal audit

New figures show multi-million euro spending on the Presidency, writes Philip Ryan

Áras an Uachtaráin
Áras an Uachtaráin
President Michael D. Higgins
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

The Office of the President will cost the taxpayer far in excess of €55m for the seven years Michael D Higgins has been in office, according to new figures.

The new spending information reveals for the first-time the true cost of the Presidency for other arms of the State - such as An Garda Siochana, the Defence Forces and the Department of Foreign Affairs.

It also reveals four of the President's 27 staff members received "special allowances" worth more than €10,000 in 2016 and one official received more than €19,000

It has also emerged that the Department of the Taoiseach has not carried out an internal audit of the Office of the President for at least six years, despite repeated commitments to do so.

Public Accounts Committee chairman Sean Fleming said he was "shocked" by the revelation and said he hoped to question the Taoiseach's officials on the failure to internally audit the Presidency.

"I was astonished to see an internal audit had not been carried out and questions will have to be answered," said Mr Fleming.

The new presidential spending figures from the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) show the President's Office received €23m worth of services from other State agencies between 2012 and 2016.

This is in addition to the more than €23m in direct Exchequer funding which Aras an Uachtarain received over the past seven years.

The C&AG has yet to publish its reports for 2017 or this year - but, on average, the President's Office has received €4.6m a year from other State agencies.

The publicly available C&AG reports show An Garda Siochana spent at least €1.1m providing security services to Mr Higgins since he took office, while the Defence Forces spent €2m.

A further €1.6m of the Department of Foreign Affairs budget was allocated to the Office of the President.

The Office of Public Works is listed at providing the Aras with more than €11m worth of what are described as "allied services expenditure". The Department of Finance provides the Presidency with €147,000 worth of services.

The €23m in services includes €4.6m for Mr Higgins's salary and the pension payments of previous presidents.

The new figures follow an increasing number of calls from presidency candidates to extend Freedom of Information laws to the Office of the President.

Since Mr Higgins announced he would seek a second term, the Sunday Independent has questioned how the President spent millions of euro of taxpayers' money.

However, the President's Office has been reluctant to provide information on Mr Higgins and his staff.

The Department of the Taoiseach, which is the line department for the Office of the President, has also refused to answer questions.

The C&AG documents, which are signed and dated by Department of Taoiseach secretary general Martin Fraser, show there was no internal audit of the President's Office between 2012 and 2017.

On March 20, 2014, Mr Fraser wrote that the internal audit function was "subject to periodic review by me and the Audit Committee which operates under the auspices of the Department of the Taoiseach".

However, at that time he added: "Given the scale and nature of the Office's operations and the assessment of risks, no internal audit work was undertaken in 2013. This will be reviewed in 2014. I have put procedures in place to ensure that the reports of the internal audit function are followed up."

The following year, on March 27, 2015, Mr Fraser said there was no need for an audit to be carried out in 2014 because of the "scale and nature" of the President's operation. Again, he also promised to review this decision in the coming year.

However, on March 23, 2016, he signed off on an identical statement - in which he confirmed no internal audit was undertaken in 2015 and, once again, committed to reviewing the process in 2016.

On September 14, 2017, Mr Fraser announced in the C&AG's appropriation accounts that he had established an audit committee to oversee the President's Office in 2016.

However, the audit committee never met because the appointed chairman was "indisposed". Mr Fraser said there was no internal review because the committee he established never met.

"Once the President's Establishment Audit Committee is up and running, it is expected that an internal audit of the office will be scheduled."

The Department of the Taoiseach last week refused to answer any questions about Mr Fraser's commitment to audit the President's Office and instead referred all queries to Aras an Uachtarain.

The President's spokesperson initially ignored queries asking when the last time the office had been the subject of an internal audit.

When asked several times if an internal audit had been undertaken, he said: "An internal audit committee was established this year. There was a delay as the former chairman was indisposed, however a full work programme for internal audit is in place."

The spokesperson added that the C&AG audits the Presidency every year. When asked if this is the first audit of the President's Office, the spokesperson did not respond to the question.

Sunday Independent

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