Tuesday, 16 November 2004
Ceisteanna — Questions.
Question 1: To ask the Taoiseach the projected total cost in 2004 of the communications unit in his Department; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [21432/04]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 2 together.
The projected total cost of the communications unit for 2004 is €299,921, of which €122,990 is a direct cost to my Department with, on average, €35,386 being borne by the five other Departments that have staff seconded to the unit. The cost for the unit in 2003 was €288,737.
The unit provides a media information service to Ministers and their Departments. It furnishes news updates and transcripts, which ensure Departments are kept informed in a fast and efficient manner of relevant news developments. Departments are able to provide a better service to the public this way.
The communications unit operates 18 hours a day based on a flexible rota of three working shifts. The unit is staffed by six established civil servants, five of whom are seconded from other Departments. The work of the unit means that Departments have greatly reduced their use of external companies and ensures they no longer duplicate work such as transcripts and tapes. The unit is estimated to save Departments in excess of €200,000 per annum.
If all that is being collected are newspaper cuttings and relevant current affairs information, why is it not possible to place the information in the Oireachtas Library daily so that everybody can access it?
Did the communications unit, for example, monitor the information given by an officer from the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs yesterday? I heard the officer give that information and am glad the Minister, his driver and the tourists involved will be safe and well. However, that information was clearly incorrect. During the discussion on the radio about the accident, I received a text message from somebody in Killarney informing me that the car had been burned out. Did the communications unit monitor the radio report? It may be that the officer in question was not given the relevant information. However, if the unit works 18 hours a day, the information it provides should be correct. If it is only transcripts and newspaper cuttings that are available, why can they not be placed in the Oireachtas Library so that Members from all parties can access the same information as is supplied to Departments and Ministers?
The only news I heard was what was on the headlines and the report that the car was burned out. I did not hear any more on it.
In the normal course of events, the unit merely reports the headlines of the main national news, the larger Dublin local news stations, Independent Network News, INN, which is broadcast throughout the country, and the morning newspapers. It merely provides a list of what is in the news. The newspapers are in the Oireachtas Library. The unit's report is merely a list and comes without comment. It is purely a list of what has been put out by the media. We have shown copies of the report to people around the House several times and people have seen them around. There is nothing extraordinary about them. They consist of simple data prepared by six civil servants. The Deputy would not be any more informed by them than he would by his text machine.
Do they know they work for a socialist? If that is the Taoiseach's business, he could surely ensure the information is dispensed so the rest of us can know what is going on.
Will the Taoiseach confirm my understanding that political appointees benefit from the same pay rises as Civil Service colleagues, for example, benchmarking and national wage agreements? Is that the case? Will he indicate, from the figures he provided, how many special advisers or programme managers have been employed since the general election of 2002? Is there a code of practice in place with regard to divulging who has been employed by, the Taoiseach and Cabinet members as special advisers? I appreciate the Taoiseach is always quite open——
I appreciate the Taoiseach is always quite open about the communications unit and advisers. Is there a code of practice in place that is known to other Cabinet members when they are asked questions of a similar nature about the communications unit or their position with regard to advisers? There has been some reluctance, certainly on the Tánaiste's part, to divulge information, which would have been seen as straightforward——