Wednesday, 4 October 2006
Ceisteanna — Questions
Question 1: To ask the Taoiseach the projected costs to date of the communications unit in his Department; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28190/06]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, together.
The total projected cost of the communications unit for 2006 is €352,626. Some €153,757 is a direct cost to my Department, with on average €39,774 being borne by the five other Departments which have staff seconded to the unit. The cost to date in 2006 is €264,470.
The unit provides a media information service to Ministers and their Departments. It furnishes news updates and transcripts that ensure Departments are kept informed of any relevant news developments in a fast and efficient manner. 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 that Departments have greatly reduced their use of external companies, and it ensures that they no longer duplicate work such as transcripts and tapes. The communications unit is estimated to save Departments approximately €200,000 per annum.
I wish to ask a question that has been asked before regarding the communications unit and I see no reason it should not be put again. The information gleaned at taxpayers' expense should be available to all political parties so that we can best inform ourselves and best ensure we are responding on matters of policy. It would also ensure we are as productive as possible. Why is the information not made available to all political parties?
Does the communications unit have a role in monitoring not just broadcast and print media, but media outlets such as Internet blogs? How has it changed to meet the development in communications? Has the communications unit been briefed on the possible implications of the Privacy Bill 2006, given that section 13 may involve it in securing secret hearings, if that Bill is to be implemented into legislation. Is the communications unit involved in drafting, or is it briefed on, that legislation?
The communications unit is scrupulously apolitical. It is a Civil Service unit which provides a service to Government in its extended departmental sense, that is, to Ministers, Ministers of State and a large range of officials across Departments. It has not moved into Internet monitoring or similar services. It focuses purely on the national media and one or two of the bigger local stations and is limited to that. It has no role whatever in any of the policy areas, or in drafting or speeches.
Does the communications unit do any work that might be partisan in nature, such as monitoring the activity or statements of Opposition parties? Does it communicate with people within particular party organisations about what an appropriate response would be? Does it have any such partisan role?
I did not quite grasp the reason in the Taoiseach's reply why this valuable resource of information relevant to Departments would not be made available to the Houses of the Oireachtas. Did I miss a component of the sums in that it costs approximately €400,000 but saves approximately €200,000? Is the Taoiseach stating the cost would be €600,000 if this unit did not exist?
Previous to the unit's existence, outside companies were used for many years to provide tapes of programmes and related issues. That would cost approximately €200,000. The communications unit provides the service of recording news programmes etc. That is all it does. There is no political analysis or monitoring. It operates strictly under Civil Service codes.
The only reason it is not available to the Houses of the Oireachtas is that it is a service for Government, meaning the extended range of Civil Service across Departments. There are approximately 100 people——
Would it not be useful to the Oireachtas? We would track these issues largely on a fairly amateur basis compared to this very sophisticated unit. It would certainly improve the quality of the work here if we could get that sort of reportage.
I would not say it is very sophisticated. It would probably not be nearly as good as political press offices, but the staff do their jobs as civil servants. If the Oireachtas Commission believes it would be useful, there are no great secrets in what is available. Perhaps it would save even more money.