Thursday, 9 November 2006
Question 2: To ask the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs the progress made in the discussions between his Department and the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission in relation to the translation of Acts; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37101/06]
As the Deputy will be aware, the Supreme Court in 2001 found that there is a constitutional obligation to publish translations into Irish of Acts of the Oireachtas enacted in English only. Individual members of the court found that the provision of the translation should be by "a fairly rapid procedure", or "virtually simultaneously", or "as soon as practicable and there is clearly scope for the contention... that it must be available before the Act is sought to be enforced on a person competent and wishing to conduct his official affairs in Irish".
The terms of the judgment in this regard are reflected in section 7 of the Official Languages Act, which came into effect on 14 July last. There have been ongoing discussions between my Department and the Oireachtas staff and between myself and other members of the Government and the commission on the effect of that provision.
The Government has made it clear to the commission that provision of additional resources, if required, is not an issue. I have assured the commission on behalf of the Government that the necessary funding for translation work, including staff and other costs, will be provided during the next funding period. The precise details of the funding required will need to be worked out between the commission and the Department of Finance, as will the precise way in which the agreement should be provided for in the forthcoming legislation to replace the funding provisions of the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission Act 2003.
I thank the Minister for that comprehensive reply on section 7 of the Official Languages Act. Is the Minister aware of any unacceptable delay in producing the Irish version of any Act since this legislation came into effect? Is it his view that the commission is the appropriate vehicle for that particular function? Does it have the resources, the staff and, in particular, access to the highly skilled translators needed for this precise legal work? Would it not be a better idea if the sponsoring Departments had the responsibility for producing the Irish version of an Act because they produce the English version of the Bill? Should Departments not have a contemporaneous function in terms of translating a Bill to ensure that when the Bill is eventually enacted there are not any undue delays which can inhibit important processes outside this House that flow from particular items of legislation?
To answer the last question, when we discussed the Official Languages Act with a view to reducing the burden on the entire system, we agreed here that we would not ask for Bills to be translated. That does not stop somebody doing preliminary work but it was decided that it would be too much to ask the system to translate every manifestation of a Bill. That was a right decision.
The second question concerns who should do that function. The responsibility for translation of Acts of the Oireachtas rests with the Oireachtas and that has been the case since the foundation of the State. That is reflected in Standing Order 18 of the Standing Orders of the Oireachtas. That is why we are in this position.
There is a challenge for all of us. Government is not trying to dump this problem on anybody else. I recognise the challenges. It does not matter whether I am a member of the Government or a Member of the Oireachtas, we have collective responsibility for fulfilling what are our constitutional obligations. If anything, it could be argued that the Official Languages Act bought us some time because if the court had asked us we would have said that we had put a process in place that gave us a window of three years. Otherwise, it could have asked for it much quicker. That danger existed, although I do not know if it would have materialised. Nobody knows until one goes before a court, but the Official Languages Act gave us a window in that we could say the State was providing a legislative framework to deal with its constitutional obligations.
On whether it should be done here rather than in the Department, in terms of efficiency it should be done in one place but the Oireachtas is responsible for legislation, not Departments. The Oireachtas passes legislation and we have to be satisfied, as Members of the Oireachtas, that there is a standard and an evenness about this process that only the Oireachtas or an agency could provide. The problem is that legislation is made by the Oireachtas. There are arguments to the effect that the authentic version of legislative measures should be produced by the Oireachtas for the Oireachtas because its Members are making the legislation.
The real challenge facing us is not who should do this function because regardless of who does it the same amount of legislation will have to be translated and the same challenges in terms of highly skilled staff and getting the best technology will face us. There is some fantastic technology that could reduce much of the drudgery in translation.
The third aspect is money. The Government has said clearly, and I repeat, that money is not an issue. The money needed will be provided and we accept that can only come from one source, the Department of Finance. We will work with the commission on the issue of staff provision. I have no doubt that if money is needed for the provision of the new technology that is available, which can automatically translate every sentence produced previously, thereby cutting out much of the unnecessary drudgery of legislation, including finance Bills and social welfare Bills and others with fairly similar provisions, it will be provided. This technology could indicate the ones that are the same and do the translation without the intervention of a human hand.
There are ways to tackle this problem, which is a joint one. We are working together and ongoing discussions are taking place to deliver a solution. It is imperative that we reach the point soon where, very shortly after the passing of Bills by the Oireachtas, there is a version available in the two official languages, as is the constitutional obligation. It is clearly laid down also in the Supreme Court judgment.
Will the Minister not agree that already the publication of important Bills is being delayed, that he is not even close to putting in place a translation system, that we are heading for somewhat of a mess in that regard and that other ways have to be considered? I accept all the points the Minister made but it appears the Oireachtas commission is not the appropriate body to have responsibility for this issue. I am concerned that the delay in publishing important legislation will become worse because it is clear from what the Minister said that he does not know where he stands on this issue.
It does not matter whether they are employed by the Oireachtas Commission or anybody else. Whoever employs them must be able to control what they do to meet legislative standards and ensure that what is in the Irish translation reflects the measure the House passed. That is very important. There must be controls to ensure the Oireachtas is satisfied that the Irish language version is authentic.
We want to work to the situation that existed for many years when translations were done without machines or computers. Every Act of the Oireachtas — I accept there were not as many — was simultaneously produced in Irish and English. We must get back to that situation. With the implementation of the Act we have created some space in which to deal with the arrears. We must listen carefully to what the Supreme Court said about the responsibility of the whole State, no matter who has it——
The translation should be a fairly rapid procedure or virtually simultaneous. That is based on the constitutional provision. Effectively, by bringing in the legislation we gave ourselves a three year window. That three year window is up and we are working positively with the Houses of the Oireachtas Commission to deal with this issue and I have no doubt we will resolve it.