There has been a significant event in my ongoing quest to understand the full cost of the Oireachtas to the public. Another part of the request I mention below was refused, partly on the basis of Section 10 (1) (e), vexatious, frivolous or manifestly unreasonable (specifically the vexatious part), Section 27 (1) (a) and (b) Commercially Sensitive and even if Section 27 did not apply, the request would be considered voluminous in nature under Section 10 (1) (c).
I entirely disagree with this decision. My request sought:
A datadump of the entire Integra database insofar as such data relates to claimed expenses, from any Member or any member of staff.
A datadump of the entire Integra database insofar as such data relates to costs incurred by the Commission in the administration of Members’ activities.
A datadump of the entire Integra database since inception.
I have gone to great lengths over a period of some eight months to try and gain as full a picture as possible as to the expenses and costs incurred by Members of the Oireachtas. I have been entirely reasonable in my dealings with the Oireachtas. I have at all times acted in good faith, and sought to the maximum degree possible to facilitate the release of detailed information on how public money is spent by the Oireachtas.
I have spread out my requests over a number of months, and at greater expense per request, in order to assist the Oireachtas in the release of records. I have been refused two years of expense claims and had to appeal for internal review, costing another 75 euro, which while successful, does not lead to a refund under the Act. I have also sought to negotiate with the Oireachtas on the tabulation of costs incurred by Members (as distinct from just expenses claimed), and the calculation of the total cost per Member. My sincere efforts have proved fruitless, which has brought about a situation where my requests are considered vexatious.
I have at all times sought for the release of the records in question in digital form. In some cases this was agreed to, however not in the form which was requested. Since 2005, the Oireachtas has used a financial management system called Integra. Integra is built on Oracle software.
In order to demonstrate the nature of release, I will give one primary example.
Last year I sought all expense claims of members for the period 1997 to 2008. I was told this would be a voluminous request, but that I could vary it since 2005 to 2008 was held digitally. I sought this information in digital format, since logically, thinking perhaps naively that I would get spreadsheets. But instead of releasing spreadsheets, the Oireachtas released to me PDFs containing tables for each year. But the PDFs were not digital PDFs, they were scans of printouts of spreadsheets. But worse than that, given the degraded nature of the text, they actually appeared to be scans of photocopies of printouts of spreadsheets. There is a significant difference between emailing someone an XLS or CSV document and emailing them a PDF of scans of photocopies of printouts of spreadsheets. This requires much greater manual work on my part to convert degraded scanned images into functioning and correct spreadsheets.
2003 and 2004 (which became part of the 2005-2008 request) were released as scans but not in a table or spreadsheet format, as it predated the Integra system.
In the next request costing another 15 euro, 2002 and 2001 were refused on the grounds of a voluminous request, which I then appealed (readers should remember that between FOI submission, refusal, and appeal, it takes up to eight weeks). My appeal was successful, but no money is returned even where appeals are successful. 2002 and 2001 were released, but in paper format, not in tables (it predates tabulation too), and several inches thick.
In the next request, 2000 and 1999 were then sought, again costing 15 euro, and were also released, this time in digital format on PDFs, albeit degraded as might be expected for older documents.
Other factors are worth noting. 2005 to 2008 contains salary figures for members, but salary figures are not contained in 1999 to 2004 – these will be sought in another separate request. Also, in January it became clear that Members expenses do not fully cover the scope of the actual cost per Member. In many cases no expense claim will be involved, but the Oireachtas will directly pay for the activities of a Member (such as flights for Committee Travel). In order to arrive at a figure that accurately represents what a Member has incurred, we believe that expenses claims and costs incurred need to be combined, so a full picture can be drawn as to the totality of cost.
During communications with the Oireachtas however, a number of questions arose as to the accuracy of how our parliament was calculating this. In early January I was informed:
Costs incurred for foreign travel are paid directly by the Houses of the Oireachtas in some cases. Cost incurred and paid by the Member and refunded to the Member will be recorded as an expense paid to that Member. The costs paid by the Houses of the Oireachtas can include hotel bills, flights etc paid directly to the service providers for the entire delegation and are recorded on the system as a payment to that service provider. It is not always possible to allocate a cost per Member for foreign travel as members of delegations can attend for different durations etc. Records are maintained on each trip and payments are made through a number of systems eg Inter Parliamentary Union and British Irish Parliamentary Association from funding allocated for their programmes. It is a manual process to draw this information together when requested.
Fair enough, I said. This might involve me having to manually add costs incurred into expenses claimed, broken down by Member, but with a proviso that the Oireachtas itself had not tabulated in all cases the cost per Member. I then received a breakdown of costs incurred by Members for foreign travel, in PDFs. I wish to stress that all email exchanges were cordial and professional. I sought further clarification, using random examples from the information I had been given:
I just wanted to make sure my figures are correct, so if I may for example point to 2008 figures (open to correction!):
Expenses: Jim O’Keeffe
€2345.72 for Committee Travel (home and foreign)
€1147.81 for BIPA travel.
No expenses were claimed for IPA travel
€2,125.78 was incurred in relation to Committee Travel
€154.58, €274.54, €556.77, €354.60, €625.01, €735.55, €68.06 and €263.79 (Just over €3k in total) was incurred for BIPA travel
No costs were incurred for IPA travel
If added, totals are:
€4471.50 for Committee
€4180.71 for BIPA
My question is do these figures overlap? When I add expense figures to cost figures do I get an accurate figure as to the cost to the taxpayer?
I wish to clarify that the data you use of costs for foreign travel per Member where quantifiable includes the expenses paid to members and therefore you would be double counting the costs if you add both figures. Please note that the example you use for Jim O’ Keeffe does not include one of the figures included in the committee travel expenses paid to the member in respect of the journey to Lithuania of €1063.27.
Again, fair enough. But I needed to understand properly where any overlap occurred, was expenses including in costs, or vice versa. They reply stated, my emphasis:
Just to clarify as stated that the cost of foreign travel includes expenses claimed by the member for each particular trip. The costs per member are paid on behalf of the Member to enable them to attend the relevant meeting as a representative of the Oireachtas and would cover the costs of attending that meeting. Just to note that salary and specified position allowances is the remuneration of the members and subject to tax. Other allowances and expenses are for expenses incurred under the categories provided in their role as public representatives.
And again, I was trying to get to the bottom of understanding how the system worked, in order to accurately reflect the position. I therefore created a spreadsheet, where I could compare costs to expenses. I replied:
The difficulty I am having is in reconciling the costs figures and the expenses figures. If expenses are a part of overall costs then I would logically assume that cost figures must be greater than or equal to expenses figures – but this is not the case.
For example in 2008 (Committee Travel, Home & Foreign):
Cuffe Ciaran, Expenses claimed: € 1758.27 Costs incurred: € 652.39
Fahey Frank, Expenses claimed: € 8720.22 Costs incurred: € 1804.93
Costello Joe, Expenses claimed: € 4110.53 Costs incurred: € 3621.9
Breen Pat, Expenses claimed: € 13664.44 Costs incurred: € 1503.89
If expenses are included in costs, how can Ciaran Cuffe’s expenses be greater than his costs?
There are examples where cost figures are equal to expenses figures such as:
Fleming Sean, Expenses claimed € 247.12 Costs incurred € 247.12
Am I missing something? Perhaps I am missing “Home” Travel costs?
I have studied the explanatory document but it does not seem to account for these variances.
In fairness to the FOI officer in question, she did seek to answer my questions but was unable to take the issue any further. She did however pass me on to the Press Office, with whom I entered I dialogue in order to try and reach clarity on the overall picture, so that I could be as fair as possible to the Houses and to the Members, when publishing combined expenses and costs data. And I did wait, another two months, in the hope that some arrangement could be reached to correct any discrepancy, to reach an agreement on release or calculation of total costs and expenses. And again, in fairness, the Press Office acted in good faith, and two months later they told me:
the system of accounts operated here is a financial accounting system rather than a financial information retrieval system and thus doesn’t provide the information in a way in which is easily accessible. I understand fully your difficulties however there is little more that we can do to assist.
And I must again emphasise, the tone was always professional and I felt that the office was acting in very good faith, and at no stage was I treated in anything other than a friendly and professional manner. But it sill left me in a position where I had an inordinate amount of poor quality data, either on PDFs or on paper, where the sheer scale of scanning, OCRing, tabulating, correcting, calculating and combining hundreds of pages of data would take several months to complete.
All this, while knowing that for the period 2005 to 2009, all of this data is held on an Oracle database, that can export to spreadsheets in seconds. To that end, I sought a copy of the database, and since the database included not just the claims and costs of Members, but of the entire staff of the Oireachtas, I sought that also. The database would also contain the expenditure of the Oireachtas, in almost any capacity, which I also felt would help the public to understand and inspect how money is spent by the Oireachtas (in 2009 the Oireachtas cost about 125m to run, yet we have little idea as to the detail of this expenditure). I believe how the Oireachtas spends money should be open to public scrutiny.
If there is one body in the State that must be transparent, it is our houses of parliament. And instead of spending tens of thousands of euros of public money on High Definition videos of Members telling us why the Oireachtas is important, the Oireachtas might be better served by opening up its data to public scrutiny. It is, afterall, our data.
And in the strange world of FOI – due to my asking, in different ways, for what the Oireachtas considers to be the same information, I am now told that my request is vexatious. It is frankly mind boggling in its supposed logic.
I will be appealing this decision (another 75 euro), and will publish the appeal letter here. If that decision is refused, I will be appealing to the Information Commissioner (another 150 euro).
This will take at least another two months – pushing a year since I started this process.