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Among the many controversies affecting our elitist second chamber was the recent story that Senators have been seeking 300,000 euros for constituency offices, which they are not supposed to have. It was an important and revealing story, by Stephen O’Brien in the Sunday Times, and needs to be highlighted as an example of just what is delinquent about this outdated chamber and why it needs to be abolished.

Senators seek 300,000 euros for ‘constituency offices’

Stephen O’Brien

Senators have asked the government for one-off payments worth €300,000 in the form of parliamentary allowances just six weeks before a referendum to determine the future of the Seanad.

Members of the upper house have appealed to Brendan Howlin, the public expenditure minister, for funding to open personal offices in their home towns even though they do not have geographical constituencies.

It is the second time in five years that Senators have sought the allowance. The last claim was rejected by the late Brian Lenihan, who was finance minister from 2008 to 2011.

Senators have not received funding for constituency offices in the past because it was assumed they did not need facilities outside Leinster House. However, many senators — particularly those who plan to run for the Dail — have local operations and hold constituency clinics similar to those run by TDs.

The claim for a new office allowance is made in a submission by the Oireachtas Committee on Procedure and Privileges (CPP) to Howlin, and was received in the past three weeks. No amount for the Seanators’ allowance was specified, but the claim could cost up to €300,000 in set-up costs if granted, and several thousand euros per senator per year in running costs thereafter.

Dail deputies are entitled to claim up to €8,000 in one-off grants for setting up a constituency office and can claim back a range of other office expenses within their annual public representation allowance (PRA) of €20,350. All PRA claims must be fully vouched for by production of invoices and receipts.

If granted, Senators could expect to get set-up grants of about €5,000, as Seanad allowances run at about two-thirds the level of Dail entitlements, and the right to claim back rent, rates and energy bills, and the cost of furniture, office technology and signage every year.

One senior Oireachtas member said: “A group of Senators met Brian Lenihan when he was minister for finance and made a case for the office allowance but didn’t get anywhere. Lenihan asked them, ‘How can you have a constituency office? Ireland is your constituency.’ He showed them the door and I’d be surprised if Howlin did anything else in the current climate.”

Howlin declined to comment on the submission from a subcommittee of CPP. The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform confirmed he had “recently received a letter from the CPP and the Joint subcommittee on Administration (JAC) regarding Oireachtas expenses allowances, which will be considered”.

CPP sources say the Seanad claim was one of three proposals made to Howlin’s office for inclusion in new legislation on Oireachtas expenses due this autumn. The Oireachtas Ministerial and Parliamentary Offices (Amendment) Bill 2013 will incorporate Howlin’s plan to make independent TDs account for how they spend the €47,000 per annum they each receive under the leaders’ allowance scheme.

Howlin cut Oireachtas travel and expense allowances, and the party leaders’ allowance, by 10% in last year’s budget but said he would consult the Oireachtas on other expenses issues. The letter from CPP’s subcommittee is part of that process.

Howlin has already brought the draft heads of the Oireachtas Ministerial and Parliamentary Offices (Amendment) Bill 2013 to government and the legislation has now been referred to the attorney-general’s office for drafting. Further elements may still be added to the bill based on the CPP submission, but a number of senior Oireachtas sources doubted the Senators claim for office allowances would succeed.

TDs are currently allowed to claim up to €3,000 worth of advertising costs within their €20,350 PRA, but they can claim for ads only in established local and national media outlets. The committee has asked government to allow TDs to claim the cost of advertising in sports club magazines, school calendars and other community platforms.

CPP also raised a claim made by the technical group in the Dail for staff to service its administrative needs. Independent deputies Catherine Murphy and Stephen Donnelly argued earlier this year that Fianna Fail got 24 support staff but the technical group did not qualify as it was not a political party.

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Just 46 of the 60  turned up last week when the Seanad interrupted its summer recess for an emergency sitting to discuss an EU directive on organ donation. A Fianna Fail motion was defeated only with the casting vote of Paddy Burke, the cathaoirleach, after government and opposition tied 22-22. Marc MacSharry, the Fianna Fail health spokesman, was criticised for flying out on a family holiday hours before the vote.

Copyright: News International