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Simon Harris: We give generously, but deserve value for money

Week in and week out we hear about the need to reduce public spending and how much we, as a nation, must borrow just to keep vital services going.

We are told there are no "sacred cows" or "low-hanging fruit". "Everything is on the table" is the phrase we hear again and again in political and economic conversations.

Yet as we scrutinise domestic spending, question it, trim it and look at every possible way to save public funds where possible, we still send significantly more than €600m abroad in overseas aid. And this figure does not include all the separate donations that our citizens themselves make directly.

Supporting those in need is an important part of civilised society. The moral duty of any developed country is to assist a developing one. We as a nation have a proud and generous record of responding to international crises, extending the hand of friendship in times of financial need to others and individual Irish citizens have an outstanding record of giving personally to charities working abroad.

As a child, I was involved in sales of works for the starving people in Rwanda, as were so many kids in my town. The whole community would come together to raise funds for those in need and to respond to humanitarian crises. Giving to those in need abroad is part of being Irish.

But giving to those in need at home cannot be overlooked.

I, like many taxpayers, was astonished and concerned to hear of the €4m of Irish overseas aid that found it way from the pockets of our taxpayers into the bank account of government officials in Uganda. Prompt action by government here was welcome but it does get one thinking -- if this is happening in Uganda, is it happening anywhere else? Where is the money going? Is it reaching the destinations we think it is and want it to?

Overseas aid must be subject to the same level of scrutiny as the expenditure in areas here in Ireland -- be it in the area of disability, education or health. We cannot seriously scrutinise and question every cent given to every public sector employee or every euro spent in our schools, if we are not asking the same questions about overseas aid.

We need a number of assurances. We need to know what lessons have been learnt from Uganda. We need to know if it could happen again or if it could happen elsewhere. We need to have a wider public debate about the money that leaves this country and is sent overseas -- how it leaves, where it goes, what checks are in place. We also need to know if it goes to another government or to an NGO and which is more efficient.

I don't want to start a debate about overseas aid. There is no debate on that topic. However, we really need a debate about value for money. If we are continuing to give as generously as we are then we need to know that the money is getting to people in need, to the poorest parts of our world and the people who need support in those parts.

I want the money I pay as a taxpayer that's sent abroad to get to the people who need it. I want to know the State's efforts are as successful as the efforts of the charities and volunteers working abroad.

That's why I've asked the Public Accounts Committee to have a meeting dedicated to these issues, to obtaining the information and to informing public debate.

Taxpayers' money deserves no less. Regardless of how good the cause. Regardless of whether the money is spent in Ireland or abroad.

Simon Harris is a Wicklow-East Carlow Fine Gael TD and a Member of the Dail's Public Accounts Committee

Sunday Independent