Tuesday 21 November 2017

Minister to hand back €16,000 over 'unlawful' payments

Social Protection Minister Regina Doherty is to repay the cash over 16 months at the request of Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Social Protection Minister Regina Doherty is to repay the cash over 16 months at the request of Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

Social Protection Minister Regina Doherty will repay €1,000 a month to the State after receiving unlawful payments during her time as Government chief whip.

A special allowance of almost €16,000 paid to Ms Doherty for her work as chief whip had no statutory basis, the Irish Independent can reveal.

Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe wrote to the minister in the past fortnight asking that she make arrangements to refund the Exchequer.

Following a review of the payment by the Attorney General, Mr Donohoe accepted his department was at fault over the overpayment.

Former public expenditure minister Brendan Howlin, who first raised the issue in June, has questioned why it has taken three months to clarify the status of the allowance.

"It's embarrassing that a Government that made such play out of recovering fraud and overpayments to social welfare recipients was unlawfully paying out thousands of euro for a political position," he told the Irish Independent.

Paschal Donohoe. Photo: Collins Photo Agency
Paschal Donohoe. Photo: Collins Photo Agency

Ms Doherty, who was promoted to Social Protection Minister in June, received €15,829 for her time at the Cabinet table as Government chief whip.

Traditionally, the chief whip role was treated as a 'super junior' ministry, meaning the office holder is entitled to attend cabinet, but does not have voting rights. However, after the General Election in 2016, Paul Kehoe and Finian McGrath filled the two super junior roles allowed under law.

Rather than change legislation to create a third position, the Department of Public Expenditure devised a new 'chief whip allowance' that was paid by the Oireachtas at the same rate as a super junior minister.

However, officials overlooked a section of legislation which states that a whip's allowance may not be paid to any minister of State who sits at cabinet.

The issue first came to light after Leo Varadkar made Mary Mitchell O'Connor a fourth 'super junior' following his election as Taoiseach.

Ms Doherty confirmed: "I got a letter from Paschal Donohoe a couple of weeks ago. The Attorney General's advice wasn't a legal basis for the payment. I said 'not a problem'. I made arrangements with payroll on my own to pay it back over time."

As a result of the AG's report, Ms Doherty's successor as Chief Whip, Joe McHugh, will not be able to receive the payment. He had asked officials to withhold allowance until the matter was clarified.

It means Mr McHugh and Ms Mitchell O'Connor are likely to be paid €16,288 less than their counterparts for the lifetime of this Government.

Mr Howlin said the Taoiseach "has now embedded a two-tier pay structure for them".

"It's hardly a surprise that Mary Mitchell O'Connor felt the need to take teachers' side on pay equality when it appears that herself and Joe McHugh will be doing the same work as Finian McGrath and Paul Kehoe, but without getting the same pay," he said.

In a letter to the Labour Party leader, Mr Donohoe admitted the overpayment arose and "arrangements will be put in place for this overpayment to be recouped in the normal way so that the Exchequer is at no financial loss as a result".

He added: "Can I also point out that this payment structure for the chief whip was not developed by her instigation. This was a matter for me and my department."

Mr McHugh would have expected to be entitled to a TD salary of €89,965, a minister of State salary of €34,474 and the special whip allowance, which has now risen to €16,288.

Since her promotion to a senior minister, Ms Doherty is on a salary of €160,451.

Irish Independent

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