Seanad debates

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Commencement Matters

Public Relations Contracts Expenditure

2:30 pm

Photo of Rónán MullenRónán Mullen (Independent)
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Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht teacht isteach anseo chun déileáil leis an gceist atá ardaithe agam. The last time I raised a Commencement matter, I asked the Minister to explain the expenditure by the Saolta hospital group on public relations consultants. The Minister kindly responded by sending me a letter dated 12 February. I think he was attending the European Parliament at the time. I thank the Minister for that response in which he outlined the expenditure made in the 2014 financial year only. I was quite concerned to learn that the Saolta group spent €169,444.80, inclusive of VAT, on hiring a PR consultancy firm, Setanta Communications. Many people find it difficult to understand how it is possible for dedicated personnel within the public service, who are on public sector pay, to work in the communications area while at the same time organisations funded by the taxpayer are getting into business with private sector PR companies.

I note from the Minister's earlier response that the HSE has not provided the Saolta health care group with staff to deal with communications matters. The HSE has its own communications people, and possibly even its own PR companies engaged in addition to that. As Saolta was not given staff to deal with communications matters, it had to go to the private sector and pay out a six-figure sum for one year only.The Minister has advised me of an interim arrangement whereby a member of the HSE west communications team was provided to Saolta. When that was not in place, Saolta advertised internally for dedicated communications personnel and, while awaiting the outcome of the recruitment process, went out to tender again for PR and communications services and this tender was awarded. That seems like a massive waste of money. I cannot understand why public sector bodies are spending so much taxpayers' money effectively on looking good to the taxpayer. If it is a matter of responding to people's letters and giving an account of one's stewardship, then surely there are people within the organisation whose task it is to do that. However, people rightly suspect that there is considerably more.

I have previously highlighted that there are only four venues in Ireland for baby-cooling treatment, none of them in the west. I have made the point that the sum paid out on PR by Saolta in 2014 would pay for two neonatologists, based on the salary scales in University College Hospital Cork which were published in January. In a 2013 study, Johns Hopkins University estimated the cost of a baby-cooling mat at €10,000. We have a problem with spending money on spin doctors that could and should be spent on real doctors. I would be grateful for the up-to-date figures for 2015, including all outstanding invoices. I would be interested to ascertain whether the Saolta group is continuing to spend taxpayers' money on PR consultants at the same rate as occurred in 2014. I believe - I suspect the Minister also believes - that the spending on PR consultants should be redirected to patient care.

I have spoken in this House decrying the HSE's ongoing failure to provide therapeutic hypothermia, or baby-cooling facilities, for newborn children in the west. I do not know what the Minister's views are on that. However, it is shameful that money spent on PR consultants could have been used to hire staff and obtain equipment to provide such facilities in hospitals in the west.

I take this opportunity to ask the Minister another question. On a previous occasion, he kindly came to the House and responded to my question on the HSE audit of the award of the Northgate contract and whether issues arose that would have implications for the then CEO of Saolta, Mr. Maher, who I now understand has moved to a job in the east of the country.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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The Senator should not name people on the record of the House, as he well knows. The person concerned is not here to defend himself.

Photo of Rónán MullenRónán Mullen (Independent)
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That is understood. However, the Minister told me the report would be available-----

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Cathaoirleach of Seanad; Fine Gael)
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The Senator is way over time.

Photo of Rónán MullenRónán Mullen (Independent)
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-----by the end of last year, but it still has not happened. Can the Minister enlighten me as to what has taken place? Does the Government have a particular view of it?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Minister, Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator for raising this issue today.

I am advised that the Saolta University Health Care Group has not paid any invoices for external communications support since the start of this year. As outlined to the Senator last week, Saolta University Health Care Group awarded a contract for communications support at the beginning of the year following a competitive tendering process. The first invoice will fall due for payment at the end of the first quarter of 2015, but has not fallen due yet.

The Saolta University Health Care Group has not been provided with staff to deal with communication matters by the HSE. It receives a very large number of press queries and needs to be resourced to answer these. The cost to hospitals in any part of the country of unbalanced, incomplete or inaccurate information in the public domain can be considerable and it can also result in avoidable worry and anxiety for patients and their families and unfair reputational damage to front-line staff.

Irrespective of whether health bodies use money for PR in-house or externally, the spending is not so that public bodies can look good to the taxpayer, but often just to manage and respond to the enormous number of media and public queries that are directed at the health service. If they are not responded to, the consequences of misinformation and incomplete information can be enormous reputational damage to front-line staff and hospitals, and can cause enormous anxiety for patients and their families. That is why it is done. It is not done in an effort to look good to taxpayers. It is more of a case of getting information and the truth out there.

I am advised that Setanta Communications provides media services to Saolta. Its fees in 2014 came to €137,760 plus VAT.There was an interim arrangement whereby a member of the HSE west communications team was provided on a part-time basis to support the group.

However this has not been in place since August 2014. The Saolta University Healthcare Group has advertised internally for dedicated communications personnel and is awaiting the outcome of the recruitment process.

I am advised that Saolta University Healthcare Group has made a public commitment to use the most cost-effective way of making its new identity known to the public and health sector. For example, stationary stocks, signage and existing branding will be used until stocks run out and replacement opportunities occur and will then be replaced with the new logo at that time. Saolta University Healthcare Group is also availing of cost free opportunities such as photo opportunities.

Given the current financial constraints the health service is subject to, I would like to emphasise again the importance this Government places on ensuring that our health service provides value for money in all spending.

In respect of the other matter raised by the Senator, I understand the investigation is still ongoing and I do not have a further update on it.

Photo of Rónán MullenRónán Mullen (Independent)
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I thank the Minister for his response. While I understand his explanation and justification for spending six figure sums on PR companies, I do not think that spending this amount of money simply to deal with press queries is essential to public welfare. It could be inferred from his statement that none of this money was used for training people on how to conduct interviews and so on. For that reason it would be very interesting to see the invoices for the precise services that have been provided by PR companies such as Setanta to organisations such as Saolta University Healthcare Group. I think it should not cost so much money simply to keep patients informed of what is going on in hospitals. Misinformation or reputational damage will not necessarily arise from reduced spending as in my view it does not require six figure sums to be spent on PR to get the message across. It is simply a matter of being organised and explaining what Saolta University Healthcare Group does in a truthful and timely fashion.

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Minister, Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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There are two issue, first, whether the PR communications function should be done in-house or outsourced. My view is that the choice is based on whatever gives the best value for money. If one can do the communications in-house more cost effectively than by outsourcing, that is what one should do. Sometimes public bodies outsource this function because it is more cost effective, cheaper and better to have external experts do it. In my Department if we do not have the in-house expertise, not necessarily in public relations but in other areas, we would outsource it. For example, if we were looking for scientific advice on something, rather than hiring scientists and professors to do a one-off job, we often go to the Institute of Public Health.

The second issue is whether the health service needs to spend money on public relations.

Photo of Rónán MullenRónán Mullen (Independent)
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So much money?

Photo of Leo VaradkarLeo Varadkar (Minister, Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport; Dublin West, Fine Gael)
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I believe it does, unfortunately. One can argue about the amount, but we would all love to live in a world where the health services did not have to worry about media queries or stories that are put out that can very severely damage the reputation of hospitals, small hospitals in particular, and front-line staff, nurses, midwives, doctors or EMTs. Stories that are put into the public domain by interest groups are often not the full truth but are part truth or may have another agenda behind them. It is important that the health service is equipped to fight back against that.

When stories about different hospitals all over the country were put into the public domain, it is important that the clinical directors, the clinical leads and the CEOs, as needs be, are prepared and trained and are able to go out in public and answer people's questions and explain to them what is happening and answer media concerns. If they do that badly, it can be very damaging. One has only to think about the one bad interview by the chief executive of Irish Water a year ago to understand the level of reputational damage that can be done to an organisation by a CEO or clinical person doing a bad interview. We would love to live in a world where these things did not matter.

Photo of Rónán MullenRónán Mullen (Independent)
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I am not sure that justifies all that expenditure on the dark black arts of PR.

Sitting suspended at 3.10 p.m. and resumed at 3.30 p.m.