Saturday 20 January 2018

The ministers, their letters to councils and what they sought

CABINET ministers have sent almost a thousand letters to local authorities seeking favourable treatment for constituents since the Government took office in March 2011.

Before the election, Taoiseach Enda Kenny promised that his ministers would focus on national issues.

But the scale of the correspondence shows that the parish pump is still present in Irish politics at the highest level.

The letters, obtained by the Irish Independent under Freedom of Information rules, include hundreds of representations for constituents seeking social housing, complaints of anti-social behaviour and requests for disability grants.

They also include everything from requests for ministerial help in obtaining new front doors, windows, showers and cookers to complaints about insect and rodent infestations.

Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte was responsible for a third of the letters, while Minister for Children Frances Fitzgerald sent 164 representations. Both wrote to South Dublin County Council on behalf of constituents.

At the other end of the scale, Justice Minister Alan Shatter made just one representation to his local council, Transport Minister Leo Varadkar made just two and Education Minister Ruairi Quinn just eight.

The true number of letters sent by ministers is not yet known as figures for representations sent by Taoiseach Enda Kenny have yet to be released by Mayo County Council.

It has said it would take a staff member almost 10 weeks working full-time to find, document and prepare Mr Kenny's representations for release, such is the volume of correspondence. The council has also sought more than €8,000 in fees for the trawl under the Freedom of Information Act.

Mr Kenny's office has declined to provide figures for the number of letters he sent to Mayo County Council.

"The Taoiseach's constituency office is not subject to Freedom of Information and we will not be providing answers to your request," a spokesman for Mr Kenny said, adding: "As Taoiseach and an elected representative, he receives numerous queries and correspondence which his office forwards to the relevant department."

Before the general election Mr Kenny promised that ministers would stay away from constituency work in the government's first 100 days in office.

"Ministers will concentrate completely, to the exclusion of other works, on the national responsibilities of their portfolios. Their constituencies, I'm quite sure, will be happy to accommodate them," he said.

However, many of the letters released were sent to local authorities by ministers in this three-month time period, with many more sent since.

The Irish Independent requested copies of ministerial representations to the housing departments from 11 of the local authorities that have ministers in their area. Some 13 ministers sent 995 letters on housing issues up to October 2012.

Much of the correspondence was sent on behalf of constituents who have applied for social housing and face waiting lists for a house or flat.

One local authority confirmed that any applicant can contact the housing department directly themselves and be informed of their position on the housing list. They do not have to contact a politician.

The only council other than Mayo that has not to date released its records is Kerry County Council, which was asked for representations sent by the Arts Minister Jimmy Deenihan. It has promised to deal with the request in the coming weeks.

IN most cases, councils responded by telling the minister the applicant's position on the housing list but saying that it could not predict when they would be housed.

The minister with the highest number of representations released, Pat Rabbitte, made no apologies for passing on 334 constituents' queries to the housing department of South Dublin County Council.

Asked if this amounted to parish-pump politics, he replied: "I don't have any comment to make because you are either pulling my leg or you don't understand that housing is one aspect of the enormously heavy workload of my constituency office."

Meanwhile, Mr Varadkar's spokesman explained that the minister frequently ensured that constituents' concerns were passed on to his local council, but he did not do so personally.

"Often, he does it through one of the local Fine Gael councillors with whom he works closely," a spokesman said.

Mr Shatter did not respond to questions as to why he made just one representation.

all hands to the parish pump: shane coleman page 29

Irish Independent

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