The government refused to ask Ministers to give a breakdown of their mileage claims arguing that even when they were shopping, at family outings, or attending sporting and cultural events – they could technically still be working.
According to documents obtained by the RTÉ Investigations Unit, the Department of the Taoiseach rejected the request, which had been made by the Standards In Public Office Commission saying that 'private activities' including shopping trips 'are liable to become mixed with public duties'.
In a letter to the Commission in November 2012, the Government secretary general Martin Fraser said it was not possible for ministers to 'fully divorce' their personal activities from public responsibilities.
The Standards in Public Office Commission had asked that a full breakdown of mileage expenses be provided by all government Ministers, saying in a letter that there was no reason why Ministers should not ‘fully and properly account for all expenses claimed from the public purse’.
But in their response in November 2012, the Department of the Taoiseach said it was 'unfortunate' that such questions were being raised because new arrangements for ministerial travel had led to 'savings of 65%'.
That new system had ended the practice of providing a ministerial car to all Cabinet members, except for certain senior politicians.
The Department also claimed that there were unspecified security concerns in asking Cabinet members to declare mileage trip by trip as all other public servants do.
Rejecting the suggestion that Ministers be asked to vouch for mileage – like every other public servant in the country – they said this would not be feasible.
He wrote: ‘It is certainly the case that it is not possible for a member of the government to be involved in any activity outside his/her home in a manner that is entirely private.
‘Even private activities such as shopping, family outings, attendance at sporting or cultural events etc are liable to become mixed with public duties.’
Mr Fraser said that a Minister ‘must act and behave’ as a Minister in all circumstances.
The letter went on to say it simply was not realistic to disentangle this ‘invisible line’ between public and private activity.
The government also argued that there were ‘security issues’ surrounding the travel arrangements of members of the Government that did not apply to civil servants.
They said business sometimes needs to be conducted in a ‘secure and/or confidential manner’.
Mr Fraser explained: ‘Similarly, the recording of precise details of a Minister’s travel would reveal established travel patterns, thereby breaching a basic tenet of best practice in security.’
The letter did not address the fact that much of that information is already in the public domain, through the routine release of detailed ministerial diaries, which was pointed out in correspondence from the Standards in Public Office Commission.
In addition, the mileage claims would have to be sought under Freedom of Information legislation, which already contains well-established exemptions to protect individual’s privacy and security.
The letters came after controversy in 2012 over mileage claims made by some members of the Cabinet, in particular the former Education Minister Ruairi Quinn.
It emerged in media reports at that time that Mr Quinn was claiming mileage for some trips to and from his holiday home in Roundstone, Co Galway.
His spokesperson explained at the time that Mr Quinn carried confidential official papers in his car and ‘works while en route to his destination’.
In a statement at the time, they said: 'The Minister is often required to interrupt his holidays to attend official functions and undertake government business.
'In order to carry out his considerable workload at the Department of Education and Skills, the Minister carries confidential official papers in the car and works while on route to his destinations. This is considered to be official travel.'
Amid public disquiet over the transparency of how ministerial claims were being made, the government decided in September 2012 that they would enforce a mandatory 10% deduction on mileage expenses for Cabinet members to reflect their personal travel.
However, the Standards in Public Office Commission were unhappy saying that a blanket decision like this would not guarantee that ‘Ministers could not be recompensed improperly for non-official use of their own cars’.
In a letter to Minister Brendan Howlin in September 2012, they called for full vouching of mileage claims saying they did not accept the argument about security.
‘It should be noted that publication of claims could only occur after the journey has been made,’ wrote Commission Secretary David Waddell.
‘In addition, information about journeys on official business which have been undertaken by Ministers is usually publicly available from other sources.’
Mr Waddell also pointed out that specific exemptions exist in Freedom of Information law, which exist precisely to protect such information.
The government was not for turning however and in a response on November 5 restated their arguments and said they had the ‘benefit of advice’ from the Attorney General.
No final decision was made and in March of 2013, the government sought a meeting with the Standards Commission.
By then, the Department of the Taoiseach had a new suggestion – they would simply restore the old system and abandon the 10% cut.
Instead, they would rely on the individual discretion of each Minister and ask them to make a declaration at the end of each month about how much of their travel was ‘personal’.
Martin Fraser wrote: ‘I hope this [will] meet the Commission’s concerns, while recognising the unique situation which Ministers face in carrying out the duties of their office.’
With few other options available to them, the Standards in Public Office Commission accepted the proposal and the system was simply restored to what it had been.
Asked for comment, SIPO said they had nothing further to add to the material released under FOI.
A statement from the Department of the Taoiseach said: 'This government has halved the cost of ministerial transport by removing the entitlement to State cars & Garda drivers, except where security requires it.
'Ministers also make reductions to their mileage claims on the basis of personal travel.
'In response to concerns raised by SIPOC, the Secretary General to the Government wrote to the Commission proposing that each Minister would provide an estimate of the amount of personal travel undertaken in the period of the travel claim, and that a reduction in the mileage expenses payable would then be made on that basis.
'The Standards in Public Office Commission replied that this proposal met its concerns. The proposal approved by SIPOC was then implemented.'
By Ken Foxe (@kenfoxe)