OTTAWA — The Conservative government defended the practice of spending taxpayers' money on a weekly free lunch for political staff Tuesday, despite being hammered over the three-year, $68,000 tab by opposition parties.
"Regular people don't try to get hard working Canadian taxpayers to pay for their lunch," NDP MP Dan Harris told the Commons.
NDP MP Charlie Angus told HuffPost the Prime Minister's Office has blatantly disregarded the Treasury Board's rules about hospitality expenses.
"Here is a government that is telling veterans, senior citizens that the cupboard is bare. And they are breaking their own guidelines and dining very well off the taxpayers," he said.
"These Conservative staffers are not being held in a budget lock-up, there is not an emergency session," said Liberal MP Gerry Byrne.
"[Tomorrow] like every Wednesday for the last ten years, they will enjoy a free lunch from taxpayers. Will the President of the Treasury Board end this practice? Will he comply with the rules?" he asked.
Treasury Board President Tony Clement insisted the rules had not been broken.
"This has been referred to officials, politicians don't get to make these decisions," he said.
Neither his department nor the Privy Council Office, however, have responded to HuffPost's questions on the matter.
The costs, $67,789.48 over three years, for a weekly Wednesday lunch meeting with the PMO and ministers' chiefs of staff, was first reported by The Huffington Post Canada Tuesday morning.
The vast majority of staffers who took advantage of the free lunch earn six-figure salaries. Chiefs of staff are paid up to $178,800, according to guidelines posted on the Treasury Board website.
The Treasury Board's hospitality policy states federal employees can only be provided hospitality in situations that "extend beyond normal working hours," where employees are required to work during their normal break and meal periods, where there are no nearby facilities to obtain meals, or where staff dispersal is not efficient.
There are more than a dozen restaurants and lunch counters within two blocks of the Prime Minister's Office.
On Tuesday afternoon, the prime minister's spokesperson, Jason MacDonald, told HuffPost the "rules allow meals for working lunches when, for example, staff need to attend a meeting outside of normal working hours (during a meal period, for example.)"
Byrne told HuffPost that he could understand if it was an occasional get-together or an emergency situation where staff were required to work through lunch. These lunches, he said, were not that, they were a routine occurrence and therefore were contrary to Treasury Board guidelines for hospitality, he said.
"It's a breach of the rules. It's a free lunch."
The weekly Wednesday lunches — bi-weekly in the summer — began in July, 2010. The costs of the lunches were disclosed on a government website and include bills up until October 31, 2013. The practice was still in place last week when staff ordered almost $500 worth of food from Indian Express.