THE Audit Office has once again recommended to the foreign ministry to revise and reduce the “excessive” General Overseas Allowance (GOA) paid to ambassadors or chiefs of mission when serving abroad, that include an additional allowance for rent, housemaids and cars.
In his report on the foreign ministry for 2016, released on Wednesday, auditor-general Odysseas Michaelides zeroes in on the non-transparent manner in which GOA is disbursed, but also calls for an overhaul of other allowances which diplomats are entitled to.
The GOA is paid to ambassadors, over and above their allowances for rent, travel, domestic help, phone bills and school fees for their children.
These were agreed many years ago and in many cases allowed ambassadors to double their earnings when posted abroad, on the grounds that the cost of living in the countries where they served was much higher than in Cyprus.
According to the report, during 2016 the foreign ministry spent €6,420m (compared to €5,819m in 2015) on GOA.
In addition, some embassies pay their deputy chiefs of mission a Special Overseas Allowance (SOA) that is equal to five per cent of the GOA.
Further, diplomatic employees acting as chargés d’affaires in foreign capitals where an ambassador is not resident, receive an SOA equal to 10 per cent of the GOA.
The Audit Office notes: “Under the circumstances, it is excessive to pay the chiefs of diplomatic missions 100 per cent of the GOA when the Republic is already providing them a rent allowance, an allowance covering all their residence costs, a housemaid allowance, a vehicle, a hospitality allowance, an allowance covering their phone expenses, as well as an education allowance.”
The report calls for revising and recalibrating the GOA paid to ambassadors in each foreign country.
Beyond that, certain embassy staff receive a ‘Difficult Post Allowance’. In 2016 this allowance was paid to people serving in India, Iran, Lebanon, Mexico, South Africa and Saudi Arabia.
In 2016, the state spent €1,042m on rent allowance for diplomats. The auditor-general hints at a free-for-all mentality due to the fact the foreign ministry does not adequately check the applications for rent allowance.
For example, he recommends that the foreign ministry should check whether an ambassador’s family members live under the same roof.
And those entitled to the rent allowance should submit not only their rental contract, but also rent payment receipts.
On the education allowance for ambassadors’ children, the Audit Office found that in some cases embassies pay a child’s entire tuition fees, instead of only the designated allowance amount. The embassies then wait for the embassy employee to reimburse them. The auditor-general recommends that an end be put to this practice.
Also, a great deal of money could be saved on airfare. The report finds that from 2009 to 2016, the foreign ministry spent €2,935m, and that it did business with just four travel agents during this period.
The ministry did not shop around for the best price, the report notes.
This is illustrated by the fact that in 2016, the foreign ministry bought 67 airline tickets online costing an average of €494. This was considerably lower than the price range of €730 to €1,509 for tickets purchased through the four travel agents.
The diplomatic situation in Mexico City bordered on lawlessness, according to the report. Paperwork was found to be missing, whereas certain payments made for medical treatment could not be documented.