Tuesday, 6 December 2005
Ceisteanna — Questions.
Question 1: To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on the recent work of the special interdepartmental group chaired by his Department to oversee and monitor the appointment of public relations consultants in other Departments; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [30011/05]
Question 2: To ask the Taoiseach the progress made to date in 2005 regarding the work of the interdepartmental group chaired by his Department which was established to monitor the appointment of public relations consultants by other Departments; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [31499/05]
Question 4: To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on the special interdepartmental group chaired by his Department which will monitor the appointment of public relations consultants to Departments; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [34053/05]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive, together.
As I have outlined to the House previously, most recently on 4 May, following the publication of the Quigley report, additional procedures were approved by the Government for incorporation into the Cabinet handbook which were made available on my Department's website. Those procedures have given the Secretary General to the Government and the Government secretariat a role in examining certain procurements where there is an element of direct service to a Minister or where a Minister has suggested a name to be included in a procurement.
There is no special interdepartmental group in my Department with regard to the application of the procedures and there was at no time an intention to establish such a group. Any workload arising from the application of these guidelines is being handled within existing resources in the Government secretariat. To date, no cases coming within the terms of the additional procedures have been notified to the Secretary General to the Government.
The decision to appoint an interdepartmental group to oversee the appointment of public relations consultants to Departments was taken because of considerable public disquiet at the manner in which certain Ministers were operating when it came to these appointments. Will the Taoiseach say how many public relations contracts have been awarded since this group was established and whether the group has rejected any public relations consultants put forward for consideration? Does the Taoiseach want to comment on a situation where a private secretary to a Minister of State resigned her post on the basis of repeatedly being asked to attend an event that she believed would compromise her independence?
In 2004, two Ministers were found to have failed to observe the code of conduct for office holders in so far as the Standards in Public Office Commission was concerned. Is the Taoiseach concerned——
The Ceann Comhairle is as sharp as ever. Since its establishment, has the interdepartmental group examined each public relations contract awarded by all Departments? If so, was it satisfied with the tenders in terms of objective, performance and value for money?
I ask the Taoiseach, as an experienced politician, for his view on an issue related to this. The public service has served us well under all governments. However, there seems to be a tendency in the past ten or 15 years to, without any consideration, draw in public relations consultants to bolster egos or protect Departments or Ministers. I always believed the public service, in attracting the brightest and best, was well capable of dealing with this area. That trust in the capacity of the Civil Service and public service to deliver for Government and to send out the correct factual messages for Ministers and Departments seems to have dissipated to a point where it is now an accepted fact that public relations consultants are necessary for all announcements by Government. Will the Taoiseach comment on this as a politician?
On the first point, I reiterate what I said in my reply. There is no special interdepartmental group in my Department dealing with the application of procedures on procurement. There was no intention at any time to establish such a group. The Quigley report contained a number of recommendations in this regard for four or five Departments, including the Departments of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and Finance. These recommendations have all been followed and I can go through them if necessary.
Any additional procedures or issues that arise are dealt with by the Cabinet secretariat. Since the new procedures were introduced at the beginning of 2005, any cases where there is a direct benefit for a Minister, either fully or partially, are brought to the attention of the Secretary General to the Government by the relevant Department. Responsibility lies with the Department to notify such matters and they are examined by the Government secretariat. Any issues relating to contracts are brought to the Department of Finance's contracts division.
The Government contracts committee has carried out a review in accordance with the Quigley recommendations. As a result, guidelines consolidating and augmenting various elements of existing guidelines have been made available where appropriate. Furthermore, OPW procurement procedures have been reviewed, particularly in regard to Dublin Castle's conference facilities. A working group was established in early spring to undertake this review and to make recommendations on necessary changes. Its report recommends that revised procurement guidelines be issued to all OPW staff. I understand these guidelines will be complete shortly and will embrace best practice in ensuring that the 2004 Department of Finance procurement guidelines for competitive process are fully implemented.
Deputy Kenny asked me about Ministers who fail to observe the code of conduct for office holders. There have been no such cases this year. The message gets home in these cases and Ministers know the rules.
On Deputy Kenny's second question, I do not always agree with the Deputy but, as he is aware because he has asked me plenty of questions on the matter, I do not use an agency and I did not use an agency in my time as Minister for Labour or Minister for Finance.
If Deputy Kenny asked me to outline my views on this matter, I think it is an industry that is far bigger than its merits. The people in the private and government sectors who pay big money for its services are wasting their money, most of the time, especially if they think it will do something great.
As Deputy Kenny said, the recommendations contained in the Quigley report arose from circumstances in which a Minister was clearly seen to sponsor a particular individual throughout her contact with the public service. It seems extraordinary to me that the Taoiseach is saying that no single contract has come to the attention of the committee, the validating unit or the secretary of the Cabinet — I am not sure how one describes it — since the case relating to the Minister, Deputy Cullen. It can hardly be the case that the type of procurement envisaged in the report has not happened in any of the Departments since then. Given that the purpose of the committee is to have oversight of public relations and communications contracts, has the Taoiseach considered explicitly including advertising in that rubric? It is obvious that this suggestion arises from the recent abuse of advertising by the Minister of State, Deputy Callely, who was more interested in promoting himself than the information he was bringing into the public domain.
It has since come to light that the Minister of State personally intervened in the design and content of that material, in the interests of self-promotion. Should such advertising not be included in the committee's remit, especially as we are within sight of a general election, so that Ministers and Ministers of State are not tempted to emulate their particularly industrious north side colleague?
I reiterate that it is not a committee, but a branch of the Government secretariat that is responsible for considering matters of this nature when they are brought to its attention. The new rules in the public relations area state that when a level of direct service is provided for a Minister or a Minister suggests a name to be included in the tender, any questions relating to the retention of consultants generally need to be addressed in that area. Such questions are referred to the Department of Finance. If the Minister makes a recommendation in respect of a matter in the PR area, the Government secretariat is asked to give its advice on the issue. No new contracts have been drawn up in the past year — there are existing contracts in Departments — and therefore no contract has been brought to the attention of the Government secretariat by a Secretary General of a Department.
Deputy Rabbitte asked a question about the issue of advertising. I do not think advertising is dealt with in this context. There are general rules stating that people should not be involved in advertising, except when it is appropriate. I do not think the rules were broken in the case mentioned by the Deputy. Ministers should generally avoid using themselves in the advertising of their Departments or agencies. I have answered that before and I stay consistent with my answer. People should avoid that. It is not necessary and is not something people should do.
The additional procedures apply particularly in the PR or communications area where there is a significant element of a direct service or where the Minister suggests the name of a person or enterprise for a consultancy or a contract. It is a broad area and in these circumstances the Secretary General of the relevant Department is required to inform the Secretary General to the Government who will arrange, if necessary, for the Government secretariat to inquire about aspects of the proposed procurement that it considers necessary. Arising from this the Secretary General will make recommendations to me as to whether any special conditions should be observed in the procurement process. While I do not want to go back over the matter again, as I recall, the Department of Finance and the OPW have also changed the guidelines to take account of the changes that arose out of the Quigley report last year.
I appreciate the point made by Deputy Joe Higgins. If the Taoiseach is saying that no cases so far this year have come to the attention of the Secretary General to the Government, where does this leave, for example the Department of Health and Children contracts of more than €100,000 this year, including ones with Carr Communications in partnership with PricewaterhouseCoopers for business skills training? Is that contract outside the guidelines of the Quigley report or is the Taoiseach aware of the contract?
While I was not able to hear every word the Taoiseach said, he mentioned procurement. This year the Department of Defence has two very large contracts for helicopter purchases, one for €48.4 million and another for €12.8 million with Eurocopter. Do those sizeable procurement contracts come under the terms of the Quigley guidelines?
I again repeat the Quigley report recommendations. The procedures apply particularly in the PR or communication area where there was a significant element of direct service to a Minister or where a Minister suggested the name of a person or enterprise for a consultancy or contract. That is the area in which the Cabinet secretariat is involved. It is not involved in matters that have nothing to do with a Minister or a Minister of State. In the normal procurement arrangements that a Department would follow for the purchase of a contract the Accounting Officers are involved rather than the Minister. If a Minister were to recommend that a helicopter be bought from a particular company, that would be a different matter, but I hope Ministers are not recommending that we buy helicopters.
On procurement, as I stated, the sub-group consisting of representatives of the Department of Finance and the Government contracts committee carried out a review in accordance with the Quigley recommendations and the guidelines consolidating various elements of existing guidelines and augmenting them where appropriate have been made available. As I said, within the broader OPW a working group was established following publication of the Quigley report to review the OPW's procurement policies and procedures and to make recommendations as to changes. That group reported and recommended that revised procurement guidelines would be issued to all OPW staff. I am not sure whether that is completed. If not, it will happen shortly. It will embrace the best practice and ensure that Public Procurement Guidelines — Competitive Process, published by the Department of Finance in 2004 is fully implemented. The OPW will provide further training for staff involved in procurement to strengthen that area.