Big pay rise for councillors delayed after nurses furore
Politicians are being paid mileage to attend virtual meetings at home, it has emerged. Councillors from across all parties on some councils are getting expenses, as normal, despite the Covid-19 restrictions.
And the controversy over the failure to pay student nurses and a forthcoming vote on a public sector pay deal has resulted in the delay of a substantial pay rise for councillors.
A councillor has complained to the Department of Housing that local authorities across the country are “paying mileage to elected members for journeys that are simply not being made”.
Councillors on the same local authority include close political allies of Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan.
Expenses have continued to be paid to councillors at the same rates as normal, despite activities being curtailed and many meetings moving online.
The monthly expenses allowance paid to councillors is made up of subsistence, a fixed amount and mileage based on the distance from the councillor’s home to the council offices. The level of virtual-versus-physical meetings varies from council to council, as well as the restrictions in place. Some councils have stuck with full meetings in large halls, while others have gone online.
The chief executive of one of the largest councils in the country confirmed the payment of mileage is directed by the Department of Housing, which governs county councils. Fingal County Council chief executive AnnMarie Farrelly responded to a query at this month’s meeting.
“In terms of mileage, we’re still working in an emergency situation in terms of Covid and any changes in practices are stated in that context,” she told councillors.
“In the spirit of that, the department issued guidance that mileage is still payable to members. There is discretion with members as to whether they accept it or not. But we are operating in accordance with departmental guidance.”
A councillor in Fingal, based in the same area as the Housing Minister, waived his expenses as he feels “you can’t justify paying mileage to go from the kitchen to the study for a virtual meeting”.
Independent councillor Jimmy Guerin wrote to the minister’s department to complain about the continued payment of the expenses.
“My guesstimate is that in Fingal we have paid in excess of €50,000 for such journeys during this pandemic that have not been made and if this is just one local authority, then the figure countrywide could run to millions,” he said.
Fingal County Council said one councillor has waived their expenses.
“The Annual Expenses Allowance for elected members is calculated and paid in line with regulations and guidelines from the department and on the basis of ‘relevant meetings’ in a year,” it said.
“The exceptional circumstances of the pandemic and its effect on the members’ ability to meet in the normal way is being provided for this year. Payment is made monthly rather than on a meeting-by-meeting basis. The budget provision for the travel element of the annual expenses is €69,300.”
The Department of Housing confirmed the distance from a councillor’s home to council HQ “is a factor in the calculation of the annual travel-rate element of the Annual Expenses Allowance”.
“The main payment that councillors receive to support them in carrying out their important work is the salary-type Representational Payment, which is worth €17,706 per annum. In addition, councillors also receive an Annual Expenses Allowance to offset costs associated with their role.
“The Annual Expenses Allowance is a composite allowance comprised of travel, subsistence and miscellaneous expense elements. The amount payable varies depending upon individual circumstances.
“Local authorities maintain public registrars of payments made to councillors and this information is available on each local authority website,” the department said.
Meanwhile, an increase in the salary-type payment for the councillors is held up between the Department of Housing and Department of Public Expenditure.
An independent review of councillors’ pay recommended an increase of almost 50pc. Barrister Sara Moorhead recommends a salary increase of just under €8,000 for local authority members, bringing their pay up from €17,700 to about €25,000.
The Programme for Government negotiated by the three parties commits to implementing the recommendations of a report into the remuneration of all city and county councillors in Ireland within 12 months of taking office.
Government sources say Public Expenditure Minister Michael McGrath is holding off on approving the pay rise until a public sector pay deal worth 2pc over two years is approved.
The pay controversy relating to student nurses is also causing nervousness about bringing in a pay rise for a group of politicians at this time, a source said. However, other sources are pointing the finger of blame for the delay back to the Department of Housing.
The Department of Housing says the Programme for Government has a commitment to “implement the Moorhead Report on the Role and Remuneration of Local Authority Elected Members within 12 months”.