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Minister orders expenses change after Donegal councillor ruling

Former Councy Councillor, Dessie Larkin.

Former Councy Councillor, Dessie Larkin.

ENVIRONMENT Minister Alan Kelly has ordered a crackdown on councillors who submit incorrect expenses and instructed that rules for claims to be overhauled after a former Donegal councillor “intentionally” broke ethics legislation.

Councillors’ travel expense claim forms will now be revised so there is a distinction between their personal expenses and costs for official business.

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All councillors will also be required to confirm in writing that they understand the new rules.

Mr Kelly told the Irish Examiner that local authorities had been instructed to bring the new regulations into force from last Monday.

The regulations come after State ethics watchdog, Stands in Public Office Commission (SIPO) recently asked Mr Kelly to make certain changes after it made adverse findings against Dessie Larkin, a former Donegal Fianna Fáil councillor, in December.

Former Donegal mayor Dessie Larkin “intentionally” broke ethics legislation when he claimed expenses from two State agencies for travel on the same day, SIPO found.

It found that he received travel and subsistence expenses from a regional assembly for attending a meeting in Ballaghaderreen, County Roscommon, on June 23, 2006. However, he also claimed expenses from Donegal County Council for attending a Chambers Ireland conference in Mullingar on the same date.

SIPO said Mr Larkin had claimed he had never read the code of conduct for councillors.

The watchdog also expressed concern that no written record was maintained by Donegal County Council showing the date a member was supplied with a copy of the code of conduct. SIPO has since referred the case to the DPP.

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Mr Kelly has now ordered that new regulations for councillors will mean they will not be able to claim ignorance when it comes to submitting expenses.

A local authority’s ethics register will also have to keep accurate records of the supply of copies of codes of conducts for all members and staff.

A circular was sent to all local authorities on Friday, informing them of the new regulations, which come into force today and do not require legislation.

Speaking to the Irish Examiner on Sunday night, Mr Kelly said: “It is important to give full transparency and accountability for local Government representatives and I have implemented these changes as recommended by SIPO.”

Recently published figures show that, over two years, councillors across the country received upwards of €22m in expenses, fees, and allowances for attending conferences, events, and membership of public bodies.

Councillors are entitled to a range of expenses and claims for official business, including the cost of attending council meetings, conferences, training courses at home and abroad, and a mobile-phone allowance.

The biggest payment made to councillors is their annual salary, capped at €16,565 a year. However, this can be nearly doubled in some cases when expenses and claims are added on.

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