€28 million in pension payments to former TDs, Senators and government ministers over the past two years

For the first time ever, the Department of Public Expenditure has refused access to individual pensions for former ministers and officeholders

By Ken Foxe

THE TAXPAYER HAS paid out more than €28 million in pensions to former TDs, Senators, and Ministers over the past two years.

However, the state is refusing for the first time to release a detailed breakdown of which ministers earn what – saying their right to privacy “outweighs the public interest”.

Up until 2016, details of how much former taoisigh, presidents, and ministers were published as a matter of routine on the Department of Finance website.

This practice ended in 2017 with the Department deciding printing them would be a breach of its obligations under GDPR [General Data Protection Regulation].

Subsequent to that, the information was sought using a Freedom of Information request but this has been refused by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform.

A review of the decision has been sought by Noteworthy, the new investigative journalism platform from TheJournal.ie, and will be appealed to the Office of the Information Commissioner if required.

In a landmark reversal of transparency surrounding public spending, the Department said it would only release aggregate amounts relating to pension payments.

In a letter, the department decision maker said: “I have decided that the right to privacy outweighs the public interest in releasing individual names, or in providing an opportunity for individuals to be identified from the full release of the information.

“Aggregate information i.e. total pension paid to each group is within the public interest and may be released.”

Details of how much has been paid by the Oireachtas to former TDs and Senators in pensions has however, been released in full, as has happened in previous years.

The Ministerial Figures

The aggregated figures released by the Department of Public Expenditure show how ministerial pensions cost just under €7 million in 2017 and 2018.

In 2017, 122 former ministers – some of whom would have served just a short stint and others who would have served for much longer – shared €3.539 million between them.

By last year, that figure had fallen to €3.348 million, paid out to 119 different ex-ministers.

Separately, two former presidents were paid a combined €251,885 (average of €125,942 each), three former Comptroller and Auditors General got €325,589 between them (average of €108,529), and six ex-Attorneys General were paid €260,305 (average of €43,384 each).

Another €7 million was paid out in pensions to 106 former judges last year, according to details released by the department.

Combined Pensions

Politicians who serve as ministers are entitled to a pension paid from the Department of Finance as well as a separate Oireachtas pension for their service as a TD or Senator.

When these figures are combined, pensions for former taoisigh and ministers can be well in excess of €100,000 annually.

For example, former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern was entitled to a ministerial pension of €81,209 in 2016, the last year for which figures were published.

His Oireachtas pension for 2018 was worth €53,291 bringing the total annual payment above €130,000.

Similarly, ex-Taoiseach Brian Cowen was in receipt of a ministerial pension of €81,209 in 2016 and an equal Oireachtas pension to Mr Ahern, making for the same €130,000 plus total.

It is open to all former politicians to gift all, or part, of their pensions back to the state and some are known to have done so in the past.

Accurate calculations of pension entitlements will not now be possible in future when ministers leave politics as a result of the Department of Public Expenditure decision to withhold the breakdown of individual payments.

In a statement, a spokeswoman for the Department said: 

The approach of publishing individual pensions data as a matter of routine was re-examined in 2018 in the context of the implementation of the General Data Protection Regulation. On balance, the decision was taken to discontinue the practice of releasing information of pension payments of individuals.”

Oireachtas Pensions

Full details of over €21 million paid out in standard pension payments, pension lump sums, and what is known as termination pay have however been provided by the Oireachtas for 2017 and 2018.

The figures show that political pensions cost €9.98 million last year with €169,000 paid out in lump sums to five former TDs and Senators.

Some ex-politicians remain entitled to termination pay, basically step-down payments for the period after they leave Leinster House. Payments worth €45,914 were made in that category in 2018.

The figures do not include pensions paid to widows and widowers of deceased politicians, which have been removed from the database Noteworthy has made available here. They cost a further €4.4 million over the past two years.

Six figure lump sum payments were made to a number of former TDs in 2017, according to the records.

This included €113,719 for former Labour Party minister Kathleen Lynch, €109,768 for Fine Gael’s Liam Twomey, and €102,127 for ex-Labour TD Joanna Tuffy.

These lump sum payments would normally have been made in 2016 but were instead paid a year later because the recipients were entitled to a period of termination (step-down) pay after leaving their seats following the general election, or because of their age.

These figures can also include pension payments related to previous public service, if say a politician had previously worked as a teacher, civil servant, or in another state role.

The single largest annual Oireachtas pension is paid to former TD Michael O Kennedy who is in receipt of €57,699 annually. Mr O Kennedy also receives a ministerial pension from the Department of Finance.

A number of familiar names from Fianna Fáil also receive pensions worth in excess of €53,000 from the Oireachtas.

These include Michael Woods, Frank Fahey, Mary O’Rourke, Dermot Ahern, Charlie McCreevy, John O’Donoghue, and Martin Cullen. All would also be entitled to separate ministerial pensions.

The pensions database also includes a number of politicians who have served jail sentences including Ray Burke and Ivor Callely.

Mr Burke – who served a six-month sentence in 2005 over his tax returns – is paid €53,291 by the Oireachtas annually and receives a separate ministerial pension.

Similarly, Ivor Callely – who went to prison in 2014 for using bogus invoices to claim mobile phone expenses – gets a yearly Dáil pension of €48,762. In addition, he is entitled to a small ministerial pension from the Department of Finance.

Open Market Costs

Pensions expert Catriona Ceitin said that for most of these politicians, retirement benefits were calculated on the basis of 50% salary and a tax free lump sum worth one-and-a-half times their salary.

This was the long-standing arrangement in the public service, but was in 2013 replaced by the much less generous single public service scheme.

Significant changes were also made to the scheme in place for politicians during the financial crisis.

Ceitin said: “When it comes to politicians however, the required length of service to achieve [a full pension] is reduced, for Senators it is 30 years, for TDs it is 20 years, and for Ministers it is 10 years.

“The amount of contributions paid in during these terms could not purchase such a pension on the open market.”

She said there were other advantages to such defined benefit schemes that would not apply to people trying to fund pensions privately.

“For example, if someone received a pension of €100,000 plus €150,000 tax-free lump sum, this would equate to a value of circa €2.2 million.

“However, if such a pension was purchased on the open market it would cost circa €4 million or even more,” she said.

A valuable pension like that – bought on the private market – would be taxed differently as well above what is known as the Standard Fund Threshold, which is €2 million.

Ceitin said: “Any fund in excess of the Standard Fund Threshold is taxed at a rate of 40%.

This highlights how defined contribution schemes – commonplace in the private workplace – are not only more expensive to fund, they are also often subject to higher taxes.”

You can search the Oireachtas database by politician or year here.

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