Monday 25 June 2018

Revealed: How much the Office of the President costs over seven years

Travel bills for overseas visits add to growing Aras spend yet details of how money is spent continue to be exempt from scrutiny, writes Philip Ryan

High office: President Higgins and his wife Sabina at Aras An Uachtarain. Photo: Steve Humphreys
High office: President Higgins and his wife Sabina at Aras An Uachtarain. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Philip Ryan

Philip Ryan

Costs associated with the running of the Office of the President have started to significantly rise in recent years, with the seven-year Presidency of Michael D Higgins now looking set to be at least €30m, the Sunday Independent can reveal.

This figure includes the President's salary which will total more than €1.7m once he finishes his term in office.

Mr Higgins's personal staff bill will come to more than €11m when his tenure ends, while travel expenses are estimated to be in excess of €1.5m.

A separate bill for Office of Public Works (OPW) staff and costs associated with running Aras an Uachtarain will come to almost €5m.

Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

It can also be revealed that Mr Higgins, in performance of his duties, has taken 16 flights on the Government jet so far this year; he used the State's private plane nine times in 2017.

This included a flight from Dublin to Kerry on February 16 where Mr Higgins attended a concert in honour of poet Danny Sheehy.

After Mr Higgins disembarked, the Learjet returned to Baldonnel Airport in Dublin that evening before flying back to Kerry the next day.

The President spoke at an event on Valentia Island in Kerry on February 17 and was flown back to Dublin on the jet that evening. The entire journey, which involved four flights, cost an estimated €11,340.

Official records for the President's use of the State-owned Learjet are never published, unlike the publication of detailed records of flights taken by ministers and the Taoiseach.

The President and ministers have to make a formal request in writing to the Taoiseach's Office to use the government jet.

A Department of Taoiseach spokesperson said the President's flight details were not published for "security reasons". The spokesperson could not explain the nature of the security reasons or why they did not apply to the Taoiseach and ministers.

The Sunday Independent previously revealed that President Higgins used the government jet to attend Ireland matches at Euro 2016 in France.

Mr Higgins flew to Paris to watch Ireland's opening match against Sweden and also took the jet to Lille for Ireland's final group game against Italy.

Details of how the Office of the President spends money are also exempt from scrutiny under Freedom of Information laws.

There are limited publicly available sources of information for how taxpayers' money is spent by the Office of the Presidency. Secrecy surrounding presidential spending has been the case since before Mr Higgins took office.

An overhaul of the Freedom of Information act in 2014 saw An Garda Siochana, Nama and the Central Bank brought under the legislation but the Presidency remained exempt.

Department of Public Expenditure and Reform figures show the office will receive €23.7m in budget funding by the end of Mr Higgins's seven years in office.

The cost of running the office has increased from €2.9m in the President's first full year in office to €3.6m last year. The estimated cost for this year was budgeted at €4.3m.

This includes paying for his 25 staff, travel and administrative costs involved with the Presidency. It also includes an average of €1.2m per year paid in centenarians' bounty awards to people who have reached their 100th birthday.

Mr Higgins's travel bill has increased more than threefold since taking office - from €85,000 in his first year to an estimated €310,000 last year.

The President's spokesperson did not respond when asked why Mr Higgins's travel bill had increased since taking office.

The Department of Foreign Affairs also incurs significant costs from arranging Mr Higgins's State visits.

However, the department said it could not reveal details of the President's travel costs.

"We are involved in the planning and execution of overseas travel by the President, including the co-ordination of travel arrangements. We are not in a position to provide information on the costs associated with the President's travel," a spokesperson said.

The department would not comment when asked why it was not in a position to do so.

Publicly available figures show the department set a target of five State visits by the President in 2015 but this increased to 10 by the end of the year. Similarly a target of seven was set in 2016 but this rose to nine.

The OPW did confirm that the budget for the President's household staff and associated costs had increased by almost €150,000 over the last six years. In 2013, the OPW's bill was €753,000 and this year the State agency expects the Presidency to cost it almost €900,000.

The President's spokesperson noted that OPW expenditure included the cost of catering for the 20,000 people that visit the formal rooms at Aras an Uachtarain and attend events hosted by the President. "It would not be accurate to report that these costs relate solely to the catering for the President and Sabina," he added.

The President also has the service of four dedicated gardai who provide security and transport. Sources suggest a very conservative estimate for the cost of Garda security would be €150,000 a year.

It was reported last year that two top-of-the-range BMWs estimated to cost more than €200,000 were bought for the President.

The Defence Forces also provides security to the President and has dedicated personnel stationed in the Phoenix Park. This includes the President's aide-de-camp and the position is currently held by Col. Michael Kiernan.

The President's spokesperson said Mr Higgins had waived 23.5pc of his salary, amounting to €76,493 in a year, since taking office, and had also gifted his ministerial and TD pensions back to the State.

"That decision brought the President's salary to the current figure of €249,014 per annum, which has been maintained over the intervening years. This is also the salary level which will apply to the next holder of the office," the spokesperson said.

"During his term in office, President Michael D Higgins has not drawn down, and will not draw down, any pension entitlements arising from his previous services as a member of the Oireachtas or as a Government minister.

"The President thus gifts €169,952 to the State every year. This amount is constituted as follows: €76,493 voluntary reduction of his salary as President; €53,558 in Oireachtas pension payments; and €39,901 of ministerial pension not drawn down."

We should be told how our money is being spent

No one seems to know why the Office of the President is shrouded in secrecy. There is no apparent reason why the public is not allowed to know how taxpayers' money is spent when it is sent to Aras an Uachtarain.

Why does Freedom of Information legislation not extend to the Presidency? And why is the public not allowed know when the President uses the government jet? Every time the Taoiseach or a minister uses the jet, details are posted on the Defence Forces website. But not so for the President.

The President rightfully represents the country on the world stage and routinely hosts dignitaries in the Aras. For decades there have been few, if any, complaints about our presidents or what they have cost us.

The amount of money we give the office is not the issue - but we should be entitled to know how that money is spent. Every detail of government spending in all other departments can be scrutinised under the Freedom of Information Act.

Secretaries general are regularly hauled before the Dail's Public Account Committee to explain spending decisions in their departments.

But when was the last time you saw a senior official from the Office of the President talking to TDs about their budget?

The President's salary is a massive €325,507. The current office holder, Michael D Higgins, gifted 23.5pc back to the State and gets €249,014 a year.

Most, if not all, of that cash is walking-around money for the President or maybe he is more fiscally responsible and keeps it in the bank. After all, what expenses does a President have? A fine detached house with a large garden comes with the job. As does an entire household of staff who prepare meals, do laundry and wash the skirting boards. Transport is provided by Garda drivers who chauffeur the President back and forth to various events and/or personal engagements. Most foreign travel, albeit generally work-related, is also part of the gig. Not to mention the free tickets you get for top sporting events.

So it is not too much too ask that details of how taxpayers' money is spent by the Office of the President are published.

Maybe the next president, whether it be Mr Higgins or not, will consider a change of policy when they take office.

Sunday Independent

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