Sunday 26 January 2020

System to double check politicians' expenses 'not worth the cost'

Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin
Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Brendan Howlin
Shane Phelan

Shane Phelan

PUBLIC Reform Minister Brendan Howlin has shot down measures suggested by the ethics watchdog aimed at stopping politicians from double claiming expenses.

The Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO) had asked the minister to consider introducing new arrangements which would allow different Government bodies to cross check payments they had made.

The call was made by SIPO chairman Mr Justice Daniel O'Keeffe after the commission found a former councillor received more than €1,000 he was not entitled to by claiming expenses from two different bodies for attending a conference.

However, Mr Howlin ruled this out in a letter to the 
former High Court judge, which has been seen by the Irish 

The minister said that 
although new payroll systems were being introduced across the civil service, the HSE, local authorities and education bodies to centralise the payment of claims, the development of an IT system to check across the various databases was "out of scope".

Internal correspondence released under the Freedom of Information Act reveals senior civil servants privately expressed concerns that the cost of such a system would "outweigh the benefits".

Some officials were also dismissive of the SIPO request as they believed "a very low level of irregular claims" were being made.

These points were made in a draft letter, but were removed from the version sent by Mr Howlin to Mr Justice O'Keeffe.

SIPO strongly criticised former Donegal Fine Gael county councillor Padraig Doherty in June after it published the findings of an investigation into expenses claimed by him in 2007 and 2008.


It found Mr Doherty had behaved "recklessly" and did not act in good faith. In one instance he lodged expenses claims to both his council and Udaras na Gaeltachta for 
attending a conference, in the process receiving more than €1,000 in additional expenses he was not entitled to.

In a separate incident, the former councillor was found to have received overnight expenses of €145, even though he did not avail of accommodation to justify the claim.

Mr Doherty has claimed the breaches were "unintentional" and "inadvertent".

Following the case, SIPO said it was concerned at the "scope for abuse" that existed.

In recent weeks there has also been criticism of Oireachtas officials over their failure to spot fraudulent expense claims made by former junior minister Ivor Callely.

A court heard he received more than €4,000 in mobile phone expenses despite submitting clearly bogus receipts, which contained punt signs instead of euro signs and phone numbers which were too short.

However, Mr Howlin told Mr Justice O'Keeffe he was satisfied existing controls and recent measures introduced by former environment minister Phil Hogan would catch improper expenses claims.

"Accounting officers in the public service are required to ensure that adequate internal control systems are in place, maintained and audited. Such systems provide a reasonable level of assurance that irregularities can be prevented and detected in a timely manner," the minister wrote. He said new requirements that councils publish payments to councillors online would "provide increased assurance" that irregular claims would be prevented and detected.

Irish Independent

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