The Public Accounts Committee has heard sharp criticism over the absence of an audit committee to oversee spending at Áras an Uachtaráin, despite the accounts having been cleared by the Comptroller and Auditor General.

In brief opening statements, the C&AG Seamus McCarthy said expenditure in 2016 was €3.6m, of which €1.15m is spent on gratuities to centenarians.

This was under the budget of €3.9m allocated and Mr McCarthy said €387,000 was surrendered back to the Exchequer.

The committee was also told that the total operating costs of the Office of the President, including the upkeep of Áras an Uachtaráin, was €8.2m in 2016.

The Secretary General of the Department of the Taoiseach Martin Fraser, who is the accounting officer for the Office of the President, told members that he relied on the C&AG for assurances that the accounts were in order.

Mr Fraser explained to members that he set up an audit committee in 2014 as an internal audit function, but the chair became indisposed and the committee did not meet.

He acknowledged to Independent TD Catherine Connolly that this was "sub-optimal", but added he did have access to the audits by the C&AG.

Mr Fraser said a new chair was appointed in February this year and it has met three times to date.

The committee examined the annual expenditure at Áras an Uachtaráin, with PAC Chairperson Seán Fleming saying he would only allow questions that focus on general spending at the Office of the President.

Mr Fleming had said he would not allow questions that related to President Michael D Higgins specifically.

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While Mr Fraser had addressed the committee before, the topic had not been discussed by the PAC before.

That is because the President is not answerable to the Dáil and until now there had been an understanding that money spent in Áras an Uachtaráin was not up for discussion.

The holding of today's meeting was criticised by some politicians given that the Presidential Election is about to intensify in the coming days.

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Speaking at today's PAC meeting, Fianna Fáil TD Marc McSharry queried an annual allowance of approximately €317,000 to the President's establishment. 

Mr McCarthy said the figure was paid under the Presidential Act and was not audited by his office as he does not have the authority.

However, Mr McSharry said €317,000 was paid annually, and nobody had oversight of this figure, which was significant.

Mr McCarthy said that in 2011, a sum of €357,000 was returned to the Exchequer at the end of the previous president's term in office.

Fine Gael TD Alan Farrell said he was not at last week's meeting of the PAC when the decision was made to have today's hearing.

He added: "Had I been present, I would have said that it stinks for us to make a decision to look at presidential expenditure the day before the closing date for the nominations for the presidency and the election."

The PAC meeting has now concluded.

A spokesperson for Arás an Uachtaráin has said that an unaudited annual allowance paid to the Office of the President dates back 80 years.

The allowance which has stood at €317,000 since 1998 is paid from the Central Fund.

"This allowance is used to meet additional costs not covered elsewhere in the President's vote, for instance costs related to hospitality for the 20,000 people that visit Áras an Uachtaráin each year, State dinners for visiting heads of state and for the hundreds of events hosted by the President at Áras an Uachtaráin each year," the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson said the direct costs of the Office of the President in 2017 were €3.6m, of which 76% relates to the Centenarians Bounty and salary costs.

They added that financial details in relation to expenditure at Áras an Uachtaráin are available on and via the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General.