THE news of the arrest of Ivor Callely yesterday was something of a surprise. With the investigation ongoing many politicians’ eyes will be closely watching developments. It has brought to the fore, yet again, the whole subject of expenses and entitlements.
For any ordinary member of the public the system of allowances for politicians seems to be a maze of different things designed to boost income. The reality may be somewhat different but the politicians have only themselves to blame for the poor public perception. Political expenses have developed over many years. Some were introduced when salary levels were not as generous as those enjoyed today, others like mobile phone allowances were an add on to help with a changing world.
Make no mistake; being in politics is not a cheap business. The total allowances for running a constituency office would struggle in some cases to even meet the rent on the premises. Modern communications has advanced well beyond what the original phone allowances intended to cover. The system has been tweaked and changed but a complete overhaul is needed. It must be designed from scratch again.
There are two particular problems that must be addressed. The first is the archaic allowance for attendance at the Oireachtas. Originally intended to level the playing field and ensure no one was unable to travel to represent their constituency, this has now become very much obsolete. With attractive salary packages on offer and people still falling over themselves to become a TD there is a genuine argument to scrap this allowance. There is no other example of an allowance for going to work.
The second problem arises from the plethora of expenses designed to defray the cost of constituency offices. This problem won’t go away, no matter how much money you give TDs. Offices grow in size and services, some TDs run two offices and some three. A TD who has a strong constituency office machine has an advantage over others. Money can still buy votes.
Some TDs suggest that they accept only the average industrial wage, but then the rest of their money goes to their party and their party funds their constituency office so it’s all swings and roundabouts. The only way to stop this spiralling expense is to level the playing field and limit the constituency office. Expand the Citizen Advice Bureaus and ensure that TDs have a meeting space and operate out of the bureaus instead of running their own machines. Immediately you have a more transparent, fair and accessible system.
While TDs complain about the expense that their work involves they have been slow to reform it properly. Some TDs have opted to vouch their expenses and they should be commended for doing so. Those that have not should not be entitled to continue with such an option.
It has been argued that vouching and checking receipts is an expensive system and might cost money, and this has its merits. Yet other cheaper alternatives have also been proposed and rejected such as TDs simply keeping their records and a random spot check carried out on 10% of TDs each year.
The real reason that genuine reform of expenses has failed is that each allowance is used by TDs to supplement something else. For years a landline telephone allowance might subsidise excessive mobile phone costs, annual constituency office expenses helped to defray inadequate set up or rental costs. The allowance for travelling to Leinster house served to reimburse costs of flyers and literature.
Times have changed. Politicians are well paid and I happen to think that they deserve a good salary. However, the expenses system is always going to undermine confidence in our politicians. In a world where everyone else, from those making an application for carers allowance, to a company executive who must attach receipts to a claim docket, it is only reasonable that every expense that a politician receives be matched by proof of outlay.
Generalised travel expenses and set allowances only serve to perpetuate an image of a gravy train. The problem of course is that recent events have seen ‘receipts’ at the heart of investigations. This proves at one and the same time, just why providing receipts is transparent and also why some fear it.
This Dáil currently has many new and first time TDs. They do not come from a generation of politicians long used to such privileges, it is time for these TD’s to stand up and demand real and genuine reform before they too become part of the club that begins to see it as an entitlement.
Johnny Fallon is a political consultant