A recent report in the Irish Independent highlighted the low vote participation by TDs when compared to high claims for expenses.
TDs are required to electronically ‘fob in’ at a terminal, or else sign in at an attendance book, to claim travel and overnight costs.
These annual benefits range from €12,000 to €37,850, depending on where the politician calls home.
It comes on top of expenses of up to €25,700 for running a constituency office and a basic salary of around €92,000.
For the running of their constituency office TDs can choose a vouched or unvouched system.
With the unvouched system they receive €15, 00; no questions asked. With the vouched system they receive €25,700 but may be asked to produce receipts.
This ‘new’ system was introduced in March 2010 and is hailed by all those who benefit as a great step forward in transparency and accountability.
The ‘new’ system is, of course, neither transparent nor accountable as I found out when I spoke to a civil servant in the Houses of the Oireachtas.
On the fob in system.
Me: Who is responsible for monitoring the fob system?
Civil Servant: The Houses of the Oireachtas.
Me: What particular individual is responsible?
Civil Servant: I don’t know if it’s a specific individual, I mean, the records are checked, monitored and marked.
Me: Is it that TDs scan their fobs and are electronically recorded?
Civil Servant: Yes.
Me: Is it a civil servant who checks that record?
Civil Servant: I don’t know, the records are published on a monthly basis on our website.
Me: The reason I’m asking this question is because there’s obviously huge scope for fraud within the system.
Civil Servant: How do you work that out?
Me: If I was a TD in Kerry, for example, I could give my fob to a colleague TD and ask him to fob in for me.
Civil Servant: You could do that I suppose.
Me: So is there somebody there to make sure this is not happening?
Civil Servant: No.
Me: So there is scope for fraud in the system?
Civil Servant: Well, on that rationale there’s a possibility for fraud on everything, in every walk of life.
Me: Of course, but what I mean is there’s a possibility of easy fraud in this system.
Civil Servant: Well if you want to suggest that Oireachtas members are engaged in that, that’s up to you. We have no evidence of that at all.
Me: Well, you couldn’t have evidence because you don’t actually monitor the system which leaves lots of scope for fraud.
Civil Servant: That’s what you’re saying, I don’t agree with that.
Me: Could you confirm that there is actually no way to prevent fraud, somebody could, if they wished, fob in somebody else.
Civil Servant: There’s no evidence of that happening; never saw anybody do it.
Me: Is the system monitored, is there any way of preventing a TD from fobbing in for another TD?
Civil Servant: Other than they’re no allowed to do it and they’re told they’re no allowed to do it, that’s what we say to them.
On the signing in system.
Me: Is the signing in monitored?
Civil Servant; Most of them don’t sign in; I don’t know how many exactly sign in.
Me: The TDs that do sign in, are they monitored?
Civil Servant: I don’t know if any of them do, it’s an option.
Me: You don’t know?
Civil Servant: Not off hand, no.
Me: Even if one TD signs in, there’s a record. If no TD signs in, there’s still a record. Is that record checked?
Civil Servant: What do you mean checked?
Me: To make sure TDs are genuinely signing in and not signing in for each other.
Civil Servant: Yes, I suppose they could if they wanted to be very dishonest.
Me: Perish the thought that a TD would be dishonest.
Civil Servant: That’s what you’re saying. In life, if somebody wants to do something dishonest, they could, it’s quite hard to stop people. We have no evidence of that happening.
On the Voucher system.
Me: I understand there’s a percentage of unvouched vouchers checked annually.
Civil Servant: Yes, there’s an audit on 10% of unvouched vouchers.
Me: Is that audit available to the public?
Civil Servant: It’s still being carried out at present, I understand so it’s not available yet.
Me: I rang about this audit last year and was told the same thing.
Civil Servant: Ok, well, the audit is being carried out at present.
Me: When will it be available?
Civil Servant: I don’t know, when it’s finished, we’re very transparent here in the Oireachtas
Me: Yes, of course, you’re very transparent. What period does the audit cover?
Civil Servant: I don’t know. I think it covers the period since the new scheme came in March 2010.
Me: Is there a requirement that the audit be published within a particular time period?
Civil Servant: I imagine when it is concluded we’ll be publishing it. I don’t know if we will be publishing it, I can’t give you a definitive answer on that. We’ve had several requests for it, so I imagine it will be.
Me: So if I come back next year there’s a good chance it will be available.
Civil Servant: I don’t know, I don’t know precisely what date it’s going to be finished.
I first enquired about the so called voucher audit four years ago and was told there was no such audit.
I enquired again in 2008 and was told it wasn’t available because they were working on the new ‘transparent and accountable’ system of expenses.
Last year I was told it wasn’t available because the ‘new’ system wasn’t in long enough.
This year I’m told I may, but then again, I may not be granted access to the audit.
The bottom line is obvious. The so called new system of transparency and accountability does nothing to prevent fraud. Politicians can, if they wish, rob public monies with complete impunity.
If we are to judge from past events that is exactly what’s going to happen.