Tuesday, 20 March 2007
Ceisteanna — Questions
Public Relations Contracts.
Question 6: To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the group established in his Department to oversee the awarding of public relations contracts by Ministers; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [43910/06]
Question 7: To ask the Taoiseach the changes effected on foot of the establishment of the group in his Department to oversee the awarding of public relations contracts by Ministers; if that group has reported to him; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6334/07]
Question 8: To ask the Taoiseach the progress made by the group established in his Department to monitor the awarding of public relations contracts by Ministers; the number of occasions on which the group has met; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8367/07]
Question 10: To ask the Taoiseach the changes brought about as a result of the work of the group established in his Department to oversee the awarding of public relations contracts by Ministers; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9639/07]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 6 to 10, inclusive, together.
These questions relate to the findings of the Quigley report which was published in 2005. It highlighted the need for special care in cases where services are procured where there is an element of direct service to a Minister or Minister of State, particularly in the public relations or communications area.
As I outlined to the House on previous occasions, following publication of the Quigley report, additional procurement procedures were approved by the Government and are available on my Department's website. These procedures were brought to the attention of all Secretaries General who were asked to implement them and to bring them in future to the attention of all newly appointed Ministers, or Ministers of State where relevant, in their Department or office.
The procedures give the Secretary General to the Government and the Government Secretariat a role in examining certain procurements. There is no special unit in my Department to oversee the awarding of public relations contracts by Ministers and any workload arising from the application of these guidelines is handled within existing resources in the Government secretariat.
What is the function of the Government Information Service in terms of informing members of the public about matters relative to the Government? How many personnel comprise the group that overseas the award of public relations contract by Ministers and how do they differentiate between what is political and public information? For instance, last year the Minister with responsibility for children wrote to everybody about the early child care supplement. I understand the cost of sending out that letter was €250,000, despite the fact that the scheme was well publicised.
It was a public relations contract and I am asking the difference between the political end of that and the public relations end. The Minister with responsibility for children wrote to every family in the country at a cost of €250,000 of taxpayers' money and that contract was awarded to somebody. I ask the Taoiseach who overseas that and what is the differentiation between the politics and the public relations end of it. I understand the Taoiseach is on record as saying the early child care supplement will cost approximately €3 million. Currently, it is €150,000 and rising. Is there a section that examines the business of the public relations side as against the policy side of this area?
If a Minister or Minister of State decides to write to the nation, who would authorise that and in what context would it be decided? Last year, Ministers of State were peering out of feed bags for cattle. I am not sure whether that was public information or public dissemination. Who makes those decisions? Is there an intention to reform this area because there appears to be a massive cost involved in the public relations end of Ministers and Departments setting out their stall to the people?
On the general question of an advertising or information publicity campaign in a Department, clear guidelines are set down by the Department of Finance on what one can do in that regard. Those guidelines have been enhanced and tightened up on a number of occasions in the past six or seven years. A Minister or a Minister of State in any Department cannot simply decide to produce a publicity leaflet without being satisfied that it comes within the procurement arrangements and the guidelines. A number of issues arose in the past six or seven years since the Public Office Commission was set up and they were addressed in the guidelines.
Regarding these questions, if a Minister decided to take on staff by fast-tracking the post and not going through the normal procurement arrangements or if it was somebody in the public relations area, it was considered that there should be a new procurement arrangement where there was any doubt involved. The Quigley report specified that in any such case it should be first certified and cleared with the Secretary General of the Department and, if there was any doubt, with the Secretary General of the Government. That has since happened. I understand there have been four or five such cases to date. If there is any doubt, the matter must go not only to the Department but to the Government secretariat which would arbitrate on the decision. It does not come to the Government or to me. Under existing guidelines, the Government contracts committee and the Government handbook, the Government secretariat would make a call on whether it was permissible.
What is the function and role of the Government information service? Is that information it should be able to dispense? It is the Government Information Service. What is its role and responsibility in that matter?
On a daily basis the Government Information Service dispenses information that comes through Departments, from Government itself or from Cabinet committees. It is mainly about reports or documentation approved for circulation for interested parties, whether it be farming, teachers or whatever. That is its ongoing job. There is not a day that it does not put out information either to a sector or more widely. As well, people seek old reports. There is a large amount of work for people trying to get reports that perhaps were published a year or two ago.
As we all know the period in which election expenditure is taken into account, three weeks before an election date, has an unreal quality to it. Is there any cut-off point in advance of an expected general election period during which new PR contracts would not be signed given the likelihood that they would take into account political dimensions or political work? Between now and the general election will there be any PR contracts or what is the nature of those contracts given the impending general election?
Normally public relations contracts run for the period of the Government, but the departmental public relations contracts would not be engaged in a political campaign or they would not be involved in a period of election.
Deputy Kenny mentioned that coming up to the last general election the Minister of State with responsibility for children misused taxpayers' money to blatantly convey a political message. However, he was not the only one. Several Ministers promoted themselves and their party affiliations under the guise of imparting information to the public coming up to the last general election. Is the Taoiseach satisfied that we will not see a recurrence of that practice on this occasion? On how many occasions has a Minister sought to implement the procedures to notify the Secretary General to the Government of a particular PR or communications contract since the guidelines, to which he referred, were introduced in, I believe, February 2005? On how many occasions has the appointment of a particular person or enterprise in that area been considered by the Government Secretariat? On how many occasions has the Secretary General made a recommendation to the Taoiseach in respect of any special procurement procedures that ought to be observed in this case, and which Ministers were the subject of this process by the Secretary General? How many times have these procedures been invoked since the affair involving the Minister for Transport, Deputy Cullen, that prompted the guidelines in the first instance?
I do not accept that Ministers breached the public procurement guidelines and the various rules in the handbook prior to the last general election. Ministers must follow the guidelines. There were a few cases outside of election times that were brought to the attention of the Standards in Public Office Commission, which were looked at. I do not believe informing people about the FIS system or the other systems where people at times do not take up their entitlements is in breach of guidelines. It is a good service and I do not believe we should not inform people. That said, it is a regular practice for the Government secretariat to inform Ministers or Departments of the proper practice in relation to the Government handbook and the criteria for following up issues.
To reply to Deputy Rabbitte, in regard to the Quigley report five cases which came within the terms of the guidelines have been processed so far. Two of these related to the appointment of an arts adviser at the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism. I approved both of these appointments following appropriate prior consideration by the Government secretariat, the Minister having brought them to the Government secretariat for advice. The other three cases were on investigation by the Government secretariat found not to be within the scope of the guidelines. Those were an IT consultant in the Department of Transport and a PR and communications consultant in both the Department of Transport and the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism. In those cases they were not within the guidelines but followed the correct criteria. Usually when issues arises, they come under the normal public procurement guidelines and the Government handbook and the Department of Finance rules which are very straightforward.
I thank the Taoiseach for his kind remarks earlier and all Members of both Houses who contacted me and my offices over the period of my recent illness.
In relation to the group established in the Taoiseach's Department to oversee the awarding of public relations contracts and the information he has already shared with us this afternoon, surely there must be a wider remit than just oversight. Can he elaborate on the function and the expected performance of the group? It has been mentioned, without specific identification, that in the issue of e-voting some €3 million was expended on PR company work in the promotion of that failed intent. Will the Taoiseach state this is a serious amount of money? Is it his view that part of the role of the group would be to promote the use in the first instance of the Government press office and the respective PR officials in each of the Departments and that it should be only in the most extreme and special circumstances that outside PR consultants would be needed? Are there guidelines in respect of the decision to seek private consultancy in relation to press work and public relations and, if so, will he outline the guidelines to the House?
In regard to any contract in a Department, there is the criteria set down by the Department of Finance, the Cabinet book and directives that cover what Ministers or departmental sections can do in the promotion of any campaign. There is also the Government contracts committee. All of these lay down the rules. The issue in the Quigley report dealt with a PR communications area where there is a significant element of direct service to a Minister or where a Minister is suggesting the name of a person or enterprise for a consultancy contract. In that case the Quigley report recommended a strengthening of the guidelines in the Department of Finance and in the Government contracts committee. It also stated, to remove doubt, that the Secretary General of a Department would have to arbitrate in a first case. If he or she was in any doubt, it was permissible within the guidelines that it would be referred to the Government secretariat, which regularly arbitrates on issues that fall within the Government handbook or Government guidelines. For a normal contract, a departmental section or agency must comply with the guidelines of the Department of Finance and the contracts committee. These documents require rigorous compliance. No one can tender for a contract without fulfilling the requirements of the guidelines.