Lear jet logic- lessons from the expenses scandal

  • Niall Hunter, Editor

"We have to live within budgets in the health system as we do in every other aspect of our lives." Mary Harney - October 2008

 “I must emphasise that budgetary situation makes it more, not less, important to continue to press ahead with the various reform initiatives that are already underway in order to deliver higher quality services to patients with the resources that taxpayers are providing.” Mary Harney - April 2009

“(2010) will be the most challenging year ever from the perspective of financing the health service. There is no doubt about that. We are living in very difficult times…we have to look at the cost of providing services in the first instance. They are very high in Ireland in comparison with other countries.” Mary Harney-
October 2009.

“Funds will always be a finite resource.” Mary Harney - October 2009.

The Minister said as the economic situation has deteriorated so rapidly and seriously she is prioritising funding for the development of the cervical screening programme and treatment services at the eight designated hospital centres, which includes the challenge of funding very expensive cancer drugs. "I will therefore not be proceeding with the introduction of a HPV vaccination programme." Mary Harney - November 2008.

“Health Minister Mary Harney and her husband Brian Geoghegan ran up a bill of nearly €65,000 on hotels, limousine hire and accommodation in the space of just three years.  That figure does not include the massive bill for the Government jet, which Harney used on almost every occasion she travelled abroad and which cost the taxpayer more than €735,000.” –  Sunday Tribune, October 2009.
Pulling out past quotes by politicians in order to hoist them on their own petard is often like shooting fish in a barrel.

And while the exposure of the level of politicians’ expenses in recent months has been one of the better moments for an oft-criticised Irish media, members of the media too, have not been averse to travelling on the odd "junket’ or (and it shames me to recollect this now and I’m very, very sorry) being provided by with the odd free drink at Christmas-time by politicians.

However, the media's sins in this regard can be excused as relatively minor and can (thank God) be blamed on the madness and profligacy of the of the Celtic Tiger years.

Some of the huge expenses run up by politicians can indeed be dated back to the Tiger excesses but even those Bacchanalian times cannot be used as an excuse for the type of bills that were run up and continued to be accrued as the economic situation deteriorated.

Mind you, the current controversy does remind me of a story (perhaps apocryphal) of the journalist who in recent years went to a media Christmas party thrown by a Health Minister, enjoyed themselves thoroughly and then sent in a Freedom of Information request demanding to know the cost of the revelries.

Joking apart, as they say, the current expenses scandal, piled on top of other evidence of how appalling badly our health and other public services are often run, is enough to force any mild-mannered observer to run to the window, make like Peter Finch in Network, and shout “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore”.

And who would blame them?

The current expenses controversy, which has made John O’Donoghue an ex-Ceann Comhairle, has now shown that Health Minister Mary Harney ran up the highest departmental bill in terms of Ministerial costs and expenses.

The stench of “do as I say, don’t don’t do as I do”, is overwhelming as the drip, drip of news of political expenses over-indulgence has increased in recent weeks.

To put it mildly, trips to race meetings, liberal limo hire, the Superbowl and on Government jets are sending out the wrong message in what politicians are frequently reminding us are difficult economic times (which of course we are all very sorry about and promise to pay through the nose for).

The official reponse to expenses revelations that have emerged to date has been that they were accrued as part of official business and were in line with guidelines.

The guidelines, of course, are effectively set by the very people who were running up the big bills.

Certainly, one would hope that the trips were on official business, otherwise an “appalling vista" would rear its head.

For example: "the Minister decided he/she'd had a busy week cuting back anything with a readable pulse, decided she/he needed a break and headed at taxpayer's expense off with 10 spin-doctors and  the hall porter on a club med trip which included a bullfight, a burlesque show, a nature safari, a tour of three vineyards and a fishing trip in a glass-bottomed boat."

Come to think of it...that's not too far removed from...ok, I won't go there.

Obviously, politicians have to make business trips from time to time, have to travel by plane, must eat the odd meal and cannot be expected to stay in B&Bs (although maybe they should be in future just to teach them a lesson).

However, the obvious questions that will be asked in terms of Mary Harney’s spending is why it was necessary to go on the (€7,000-an-hour) Government jet on this business, however vital it might have been, and why it was necessary to take a sizeable retinue of civil servants and advisers on these trips.

Is there any formal advance vetting process when such trips are proposed? You can probably guess the answer to that one.

Shouldn’t a Minister have to justify in advance a) having to make the trip in the first place and b) the number of people (including family members) they have to take with them, in addition to an estimate of the cost and a justification for this cost?

These rules would apply in any half-decently run private company.

We do know that one particular trip by the Minister was related to looking at how cancer services had been reorganised in Canada.

The rationale for this trip was eminently sensible, and the fact-finding mission (haven’t these people ever heard of Google?) may have eventually benefited cancer services in Ireland.

However, the prodigal rate of expenditure on the excursion must be open to question.

The reasons behind other expensive foreign trips made by Minister Harney have not yet been made in any great detail.

Mary Harney has said that all the trips were on necessary and legitimate departmental business, sometimes related to the planning of, for example cancer or children's services, or else she was representing the Government on some trips when she served as Tanaiste.

It has not yet known whether the Minister will maker a fuller statement on the expenses issue. In the meantime, more details of her expenses are expected to be released to the media shortly under FOI.

What has perhaps astounded the public and the media moreso even that the rate of expenses and costs run up by politicians has been their attitude to the revelations.

The subtext to this attitude, underneath some perfunctory assurances that the expenses system will be reformed, to date has been that the public does not really have a right to know.

The politicians’ attitude is that they work hard (which undoubtedly is true) but that any questioning of the bills they run up in the process is regarded as at best an intrusion and at worst a threat.

This can be seen from the length of time it took the newspaper concerned to prise the details of the Health Minister’s trips from the vaults, and from the fact that some details were “redacted” (a fancy word for censored?).

The same newspaper also received legal threats as a result of the accounts it published of the former Ceann Comhairle’s expenses.

Official Ireland, the Government, the health service or any other part of the public service, will pay lip service to being transparent and accountable,

It will even hire spin doctors and advisers on chunky salaries to show how accountable they are. But Official Ireland’s accountability is only ever on its own terms.

Anyone who has tried extract information from the health services or other services through FOI or formal communications channels will testify to how difficult this process can sometimes be.

The only way we usually find out that is really going on in the health service is through media “leaks” or (eventually and often in a limited and edited form) through FOI.

Even under FOI, information appears often to be withheld by the relevant sections of the public service under a rather liberal interpretation of FOI rules on denial of access.

In a properly-run democracy, a lot of the data currently sought under FOI and often guarded jealously by officialdom would automatically be there for all to see at the click of a mouse on an official website.

That might put some manners on Official Ireland and might, as an unexpected by-product, lead to politicians and leading public servants being “hounded” much less by the media.

Telling everyone pretty much everything about everything that doesn't have obvious national security implications would possibly put the media out of business, but this is happening anyway in the current recession. (Only joking, I think.)

In any properly transparent and accountable political and public service system, details of Ministerial visits overseas, the precise purpose of them, what was gained from them, the reason for the number of people who were sent on them and justification for what was spent during the trips should be published as soon as possible after the event on official websites.

The politicians’ expenses scandal, depressing though it undoubtedly is, will hopefully be a turning point in Irish politics and public services.

Basically, people would like to know as a matter of courtesy and if it’s not too much trouble, how their money is being spent.

And when they are caught out, politicians might do us the courtesy of being a tad more graceful in their contrition. Or even show some contrition.

But I wouldn’t hold my breath.

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