Dail Expenses: So can a TD claim parliamentary expenses to help run a political campaign?

There’s been a fascinating twist in the TDs expenses story. Yesterday it seemed that three Socialist Party TDs were in hot water when they admitted they had used travel expenses to pay for their travel during their campaign against the Household Charge.  Today it may be the Oireachtas Commission which has the greater difficulties to face in explaining just what is hard and fast about its rules, and what might be ‘open to negotiation interpretation’.

The Indo reports:

THE entire system of expenses for TDs was under fresh scrutiny last night after a series of revelations about using taxpayers’ money to fund the campaign against the household charge.

Three left-wing TDs yesterday admitted claiming mileage for travelling outside of their constituencies to campaign against the €100 charge.

Richard Boyd Barrett, who belongs to the same electoral grouping (United Left Alliance)  also said “he had been warned not to use his expenses in that way” (ie for political campaigning rather than for constituency work).

The Commission’s several rounds of bargaining with Pearse Doherty last week may have opened a door of opportunity for the three errant TDs. As Michael Brennan reported last week (whilst the rest of the world was plugged into that ‘tiocfaidh ar lamh’ moment):

He had first tried to claim that he could avoid repaying the €8,000 concerned by putting it towards the €15,000 cost of buying his car.

The Irish Independent had revealed that he broke Dail rules by using €8,000 of his €33,000 in travel and accommodation expenses to hire party workers.

But after the Leinster House authorities rejected an attempt to claim a car purchase on expenses, Mr Doherty adopted a different approach.

He wrote to them saying he had only claimed for diesel and toll charges and had forgotten a number of car costs that he was entitled to claim. These included oil, tyres, maintenance, insurance, road tax, driving licence, AA membership and depreciation in the value of his car.

On this basis, Mr Doherty argued that he was entitled to claim the full civil service rate for the 45,000 miles he drives. This increased his mileage claim from the €11,273 he had actually spent on diesel and toll charges to around €22,000.

Mr Doherty said that when his accommodation bill of €13,000 was included, this put him “in excess” of the €33,000 in expenses that he had claimed.

Even so, it took three goes for Doherty to come up with an acceptable version of what he had done with the money to avoid paying back the cash he had previously claimed had been spent on two workers.

Yet there appeared not to be much in the way of ambiguity before these events. Pearse’s Independent Donegal SW colleague and chair of the Committee on Members Interests Thomas Pringle was clear about the limitations of the expenses regime when he spoke on Morning Ireland:

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And he’s quoted in the Indo saying the regulations were clear enough for him “it’s only for travel within the constituency and for travel to and from the Dail.”

Despite the fact that this expenses regime is only a few years old it is already dropping into disrepute. This is barely surprising since it is the pre-calculated system that Westminster dumped after the duck-house, motte cleaning fiasco of a few years ago.

Only about a third of all TDs ever pay any of their estimated expenses back to the Oireachtas. As Pringle notes on Morning Ireland a vouched system would be less open to abuse. But this latest story points up the same confusion we’ve seen with the Sinn Fein TDs earlier: ie, between costs incurred as a public representative and those incurred as a party animal.

Opposition parties were right to police this government (as much as the last) in terms of how much (and on what) the government spent on the Referendum Commission. Sure it is time to have a proper and heat free debate on what it is permissible for public representatives spend their public money on?

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