TDs can pay full travel costs even if they miss a series of actual Dáil sessions

TDs are able to claim the maximum level of travel and accommodation costs to attend Leinster House, despite missing a large number of days when the Dáil actually sits.

Records used by Houses of the Oireachtas to verify attendance of members to claim Travel and Accommodation Allowance (TAA) emphasize that there is no financial penalty for TDs who register lower attendance average in Dáil affairs.

An analysis of the latest records reveals that two Fianna Fáil TDs – James Lawless and Willie O’Dea – were not on record as being in the Dáil 30 days or more out of 95 days when he sat last year.

Nine other TDs have missed at least 20 Dáil sitting days in 2021, with all but one still claiming the maximum TAA, which is based on the distance from their home to Kildare Street.

To qualify for the maximum level of annual expenditure, Members must register their attendance by ‘registering’ at terminals within Leinster House, for a minimum of 120 days which may include both Dáil sitting days and days without a session.

Attendance records of Taoiseach Micheál Martin as well as Ministers and Ceann Comhairle are not collected as they are not entitled to expenses under the TAA.

The value of the TAA ranges from €9,000 for MPs in Dublin-based constituencies to €34,065 for those living more than 360km away.

The highest amount currently claimed is €33,395 by Kerry-based Healy-Rae brothers Danny and Michael, and Cork South-West TDs Holly Cairns and Michael Collins, who live 330-360km from Dublin .

The TAA register, combined with recordings of Dáil proceedings, indicates that Kildare North TD Mr Lawless attended only 63 of the 95 sitting days of the Dáil in 2021.

When asked why he had one of the lowest turnouts of any TD for Dáil business last year, Mr Lawless, who receives €25,295 a year under the TAA , said he had met the requirement to attend the Dáil for 120 days to claim the full allowance every year since his first election in 2016.

However, Fianna Fáil TD said it was “not convinced” by the TAA system as a measure of the work done by elected officials “or anything other than the number of times you are in the building each year”.

“It is technically possible to spend five minutes at Leinster House and count it as a day. Similarly, you could spend 12 to 14 hours there on a day when there are late votes, as I have often done, and that counts equally,” Mr Lawless said.

He claimed the system did not take into account constituency or political work done by TDs outside Leinster House.

Mr Lawless pointed out that as a backbench TD he had fewer opportunities to speak to the Dáil, which reduced the time he had to spend in the chamber, while there were also personal reasons why he could not attend Leinster House on certain days.

The Kildare TD, who also practices as a barrister, said he did not believe his legal work had impacted his attendance at the Dáil.

“I do not accept instructions that conflict with Dáil cases and in fact the number of cases heard in the courts during Covid has been significantly reduced,” he added.

His Limerick City TD party colleague Mr O’Dea is only registered at the Dáil 64 out of 95 days in 2021.

Mr O’Dea, who claims €30,350 under the TAA each year, did not respond to a request for comment.

A spokesperson for the Houses of the Oireachtas said a TD’s absence from Leinster House could be due to a number of reasons, including poor health or the performance of his duties as a public representative or committee member Oireachtas outside Dublin or overseas.

Sinn Féin TD Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire, who only attended the Dáil for 68 sitting days last year, said he took four weeks off around the time his wife, Eimear, gave birth the couple’s third child over the summer.

Cork South Central TD said he also had to travel away from Leinster House several times to self-isolate with his young family with Covid cases.

Mr Ó Laoghaire has only claimed the TAA for 110 days, meaning he has to repay 10% of the TAA worth €31,365 to which he would normally be entitled.

According to Oireachtas rules, members must repay 1pc of TAA for each day below the minimum attendance of 120 days.

Six other TDs did not receive the maximum level of spending, including Gary Gannon of the Social Democrats, who claimed only 108 days, 81 of which were Dáil sittings.

Records indicate that Sinn Féin housing spokesman Eoin Ó Broin is the only TD to voluntarily waive the TAA – which is worth €9,000 for the Dublin Mid-West TD.

They also show that the Leas Ceann Comhairle, Catherine Connolly – an independent TD for Galway West – was the only MP to be in the Dáil for all 95 sitting days last year.

Other TDs who have attended the Dáil for over 90 sitting days include Cathal Crowe (FF), Pat Buckley (SF), Colm Burke (FG) and Marc MacSharry (Ind).

Mr Crowe, a TD from Clare, said he thought it was important for TDs to ‘attend every sitting day of the Dáil’.

He admitted that organizing a “huge” workload between his constituency and the Dáil was “an act of juggling”.

Mr Crowe added: ‘But I have an elected mandate to be in the Dáil chamber on behalf of the people of Clare, representing their issues and contributing to legislation.’

This view was echoed by Cork East TD Pat Buckley who said it was “imperative” that he was involved as much as possible in the affairs of the Dáil or Oireachtas committee as it was his job “to work on behalf of my constituents”.

Colm Burke said he was happy with how the TAA system worked, but said he thought it was a challenge for politicians with young families, especially those in remote constituencies.

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