TD’s expenses are once again under the spotlight following the decision of a number of Dublin TDs to waive or partially waive their travel expenses, as revealed in the Irish Independent. These include all six Social Democrats TDs; three Green Party TDs; two Fianna Fáil TDs; and three Solidarity-PBP TDs. Other TDs have defended their use of the expenses, including Michael Collins, Michael Fitzmaurice, and Noel Grealish, who all argue along similar lines that the location of their constituencies in rural Ireland justifies their uptake of the allowance. Furthermore, Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe is said to be reviewing travel expenses in light of COVID-19 as less TDs are attending Dáil Éireann than as is usual.

Speaking on The Pat Kenny Show on Newstalk this morning [28th May 2020], Cork South-West independent TD Michael Collins defended his use of his expenses, stating that it is “fair enough” that those who don’t turn up shouldn’t get the money, but says that he and other rural TDs that are attending the Dáil do have a genuine expense and thus should be able to avail of their allowances.

On the other side of the argument is Dublin South-West RISE TD Paul Murphy, who also appeared on The Pat Kenny Show. Speaking to he argued that even putting expenses to one side, base salaries should be reduced: “It seems surreal that TDs and Ministers on big salaries are also getting thousands of euros in unvouched travel expenses while actual Dáil sittings are reduced. There is no justification for these expenses being unvouched. TDs salaries should be cut to be in line with average workers’ earnings, and only legitimate expenses with receipts should actually be paid”.

There is certainly merit to the argument of the rural TDs – there are greater expenses associated with travel from rural Ireland – but do our representatives require the level of expenses that they are currently offered? Paul Murphy thinks they don’t. Let’s dig down into the figures and find out.

The basic salary of a TD is €96,189, before tax. Further allowances can be given on top of this to those holding positions such as Taoiseach, ministers, party whips, Ceann Comhairle, committee chairpersons, and so on. These top-up allowances range from €3,000 for Labour Party Assistant Whip to €111,401 for the Taoiseach. Compare this to the total earnings of the average worker in 2018 which was €38,871, as reported by the Central Statistics Office. That means the lowest paid TD is earning nearly 250% of the average worker across all sectors; 526% of the average accommodation and food sector worker; 322% of the average retail worker; and even when considering the average earnings in the information and communications sector, the highest paid, the base TD salary is still 157% of this figure. The disparity between our elected representatives and the average worker becomes even greater should a TD hold one of the positions associated with an additional allowance, as mentioned above. The Taoiseach, for example, earns 1137% of the average accommodation and food services worker.

On top of this salary, the majority of TDs are offered further allowances for expenses. Perhaps the most well known of these is the Travel and Accommodation allowance, which is paid out based on the distance from a TD’s place of habitual residence to Leinster house. This ranges from €9,000 for a TD living with 25km to €34,065 for those living in excess of 360km from Leinster House. This allowance assumes 150 days of attendance at Dáil Éireann, with a failure to “clock in” on at least 120 days leading to a 1% decrease per each failure to record attendance. On top of this there is a Public Representatives Allowance (PRA) of €20,350 for a regular TD or €16,000 for a Minister or Minister of State. The PRA is to be spent on expenses related to a TD or Minister’s work as a public representative; it is fully vouched, paid annually, and any overpayment must be paid back. Valid expenses under PRA range from the relatively mundane of stationery and cleaning of offices to conference attendance and rent associated with constituency offices. On top of these there is a one-off payment of €8,000 available for establishment of a constituency office, and a mobile phone allowance of up to €750 over an 18-month period.

From these figures we can determine the earnings of a TD in a non-ministerial role should they take their full salary and avail of all allowances (excluding the Constituency Office Establishment Allowance and adjusting the mobile phone allowance to equate to a 12-month period) – this is €151,105.50 per year. Going off 2016 data, this would place such a TD in a position where their income exceeded more than 94.3% of the population. The Tánaiste would have an income greater than that of at least 97.3% of the population, and the Taoiseach would be earning more than at least 98.1% of the population. It must be stated that income has risen since 2016, so one would expect slightly lower figures in terms of the proportion of the population whom TDs earn in excess of. However, these figures do illustrate the gap in terms of income between the average worker and their public representatives.

While the majority of TDs are hard working individuals who do their best to represent their constituencies and the national interest, it simply has to be questioned whether they should be entitled to the levels of remuneration they are currently receiving. The expenses on offer to TDs are not afforded to the vast majority of workers who must fund travel to and from work out of their own pockets. In fact, if we take away expenses from the equation and consider the base TD salary alone, this still leaves them with earnings greater than 77.4% of the population in 2018 – whilst still not at the median wage, it is undeniably more equitable than the current situation and perhaps can be justified on grounds of the responsibility the job entails. Under the current system conflicts of interest are also presented to TDs should they be considering taxing income on high earners, as they are included in this bracket. Furthermore, the degree to which a TD on such an elevated income can realistically empathise with the concerns of the average worker or social welfare recipient is questionable. In fact, this issue has been raised by TDs themselves regarding potential tapering of the Pandemic Unemployment Payment of €350 per week.

While it is true rural TDs do have greater expenses related to travel than those based in Dublin, is a maximum of €34,065 really necessary when the base salary is already so high? Under the current system it would not be unfair to suggest that a TD’s salary is an allowance for their life outside of their role as public representatives, with the system of allowances taking the place of work-related expenses. A system similar to this is seldom, if ever, applied to those in private- or public-sector employment. Further issues can be raised when TDs are in receipt of further income, such as renting out accommodation; being a shareholder; or being in possession of assets such as land. These sources of income are considered when one seeks social welfare, should the case be any different for public representatives?

I would argue that a salary more in line with the income of the average citizen would be preferable to the current system. A means test could be implemented to determine the need for TDs to claim expenses off the State, as is the case with means-tested social welfare payments which are designed to determine an individual’s need for (usually) €203 per week – about €10,500 a year, little more than the travel expenses which are afforded to Dublin TDs, and one-third of those living furthest from Leinster House. All expenses claims could also require, with due regard to privacy legislation, the publication of receipts that that show that they were in fact paid for. This would have the benefit of providing the public with clarity, increasing transparency regarding government finances, and would protect TDs from accusations of profligacy by members of the public and the press.

It should be noted, contrary to the common refrain amongst many across the political spectrum, that a reduction in the salaries and allowances of TDs would have no more than a miniscule effect on government finances. A total of €43.96 million was spent on TD’s salaries and allowances for 2018, in contrast to €73.1 billion of total State expenditure – a drop in the ocean, 0.06%. However, it would have immense symbolic meaning which would go far beyond that of its financial impact. It would be an acknowledgement by all of our public representatives that they are representing Ireland as a collective and that they do indeed see things this way. It would prove that TDs do not see themselves as part of a political elite which fails to show due regard for the average citizen, as some populists argue or insinuate. It would foster a greater sense of solidarity between the Dáil and the electorate. And finally, it would signal that our society should be built on the principles of equality and fairness.

In this period of fiscal uncertainty, it would be a more than welcome move for our TDs to reform their salary and expenses system. They should lead by example.