Tuesday, 18 October 2005
Ceisteanna — Questions.
Question 1: To ask the Taoiseach the total projected costs to date of the communications unit in his Department; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24228/05]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive, together.
The total projected cost of the communications unit to date in 2005 is €239,951. The sum of €96,938 is a direct cost to my Department, with on average €32,475 being borne by the five other Departments with staff seconded to the unit. The total projected cost of the unit for 2005 is €319,934, with €129,250 being a direct cost to my Department. The total cost of the communications unit since 2002, which includes a projected cost for 2005, is €1,085,300.
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 quick and efficient manner of any relevant news developments. In this way, Departments are able to provide a better service to the public.
The communications unit works an 18-hour 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 Departments have greatly reduced their use of external companies and ensure they no longer duplicate work such as transcripts and tapes. The communications unit is estimated to save Departments in excess of €200,000 per annum.
It is a long day to be giving bad news. The Taoiseach's normal defence of the unit is that it replaces use by Departments of commercial transcript-providing companies. Is the Taoiseach satisfied that no Department continues to get transcripts of media programmes and interviews on a commercial basis?
Last May the Taoiseach said it was estimated the communications unit saved Departments in excess of €200,000 per annum, yet it will cost €319,000 to run the unit this year. Does the Taoiseach consider that to be good value?
The last time we discussed this matter the Taoiseach extended an invitation to Deputy Rabbitte and me to see the communications unit for ourselves. If there is a possibility that we might have to examine the unit, is the invitation still open?
I am always happy to show Deputies the good services provided by my Department. If other Departments are using transcripts for programmes available from the communications unit, they should not be. I am not certain that none of them is but there is no reason they should, although the unit does not cover local programmes. Of the staff in the unit, 90% are from other Departments so they know transcripts are available.
The figure for savings has been used for the past seven or eight years since the service started. If it were to be estimated now, it would be much higher. The unit gives a good service and good value. It is not just a service to Ministers but to several hundred people who get updates every hour of every day. It is a useful service provided by a small number of people and produces savings equal to the salaries and allowances paid to staff it. It is a Civil Service unit, not a political one.
Is the Taoiseach satisfied with the performance of this unit? He says its central purpose is to keep Ministers informed. A pattern has emerged in recent times whereby if anything controversial is discussed in this House, the only thing one can be certain of is that Ministers will claim not to have been informed. Might this unit fill the vacuum in the memories and knowledge of line Ministers who should be aware of things going awry in their Department and who, even when information appears in the press, still do not know about it?
The Deputy knows the unit deals with issues of the day that are in the public domain. It cannot do any more than that. It is not a political unit and cannot forewarn or advise Ministers or their officials in advance.
Given that the communications unit is staffed by established civil servants and provides a news monitoring service to a range of Ministers and Departments other than the Taoiseach's, will he not accede to the repeated requests of Deputies that the service be made available in the Oireachtas Library so that all Members of this House can have access to the information provided? Given that it is paid for by taxpayers, does he not believe that the media summaries and updates of news reports should also be put on the internal Oireachtas website as a resource for Members?
Failing that, does the Taoiseach agree that the information should be made available on request from the communications unit? If the answer to any or all of these questions is "No", will he explain why?
Data prepared by civil servants in their normal course of work are not made available to Members of the House and this case is no different. The information provide by the communications unit is a summary of daily news bulletins. Members may access this information themselves. The advantage of this is that transcripts and other information are available; that is the service that is provided to Departments rather than having them deal with commercial organisations.
It is interesting to note how much Civil Service time, energy and resources have been invested in the communications unit, yet freedom of information legislation has been amended to frustrate the accessing of information that may otherwise be — and should be — available. Is there not merit in the opinion that this is less of a communications unit and more of a propaganda unit which is doing the business of Government, instead of providing an objective service available to all sides of the House and the Oireachtas in general?
From a legal point of view I would argue that there is an obligation on the communications unit to be available more widely than just to the Government and to the people working on its behalf who were mentioned by the Taoiseach. Has the Taoiseach had any discussions with the Attorney General on this issue and does a case have to be answered on the availability of information from the communications unit?
If the Deputy is suggesting that a summary of what is contained in the morning newspapers and on radio equates to propaganda, I am not sure who benefits from this propaganda. That is a point of view worth debating. This unit points out what is in the newspaper and radio headlines.