Tuesday, 30 March 1999
Dáil Éireann Debate
Mr. Rabbitte: An extraordinary item appeared in The Sunday Times on Sunday as a result of an investigation by the information commissioner. It is a full page article. The gentleman in the accompanying photograph without the dark glasses is the Taoiseach and the other gentleman is the head of this monitoring unit. The finding of the information commissioner shows that this unit, under the guise of operating as part of the GIS, is transparently for political purposes. I should remind the House that section 2 of the Freedom of Information Act classes as exempt from production under that Act the papers created for or held by Government Ministers and Ministers of State relating to party political activity. This is a reasonable exemption since the documents in question do not relate to the performance of official ministerial functions or Government business. Freedom of information legislation covers the public sector not private activity.
This case, however, demonstrates the extent to which, under this Government, the distinction between official and party political activity has been blurred, if not entirely erased. Deputy Hogan and The Sunday Times applied under the Freedom of Information Act for access to correspondence between the manager of the Government's media monitoring unit and the Taoiseach. Both applicants were met with the extraordinary response, upheld on appeal by the information commissioner, that these records were exempt from production on the grounds that they relate to party political activity. The reality is that the media monitoring unit is a Fianna Fáil espionage unit funded by the taxpayer to monitor what its political opponents are saying about Fianna Fáil. It is Fianna Fáil's very own little GCHQ eavesdropping for political purposes on political opponents.
The unit is staffed by six full-time civil servants and headed by a former party press aide. The full year cost of the unit is £70,000, according to the  Taoiseach, excluding the salaries of the six civil servants who are being used for party political purposes. While the unit masquerades as an integral part of the Government Information Service, supplying a service to members of the Government, its purpose, as revealed by the information commissioner, is transparently party political. The State pays for this as if it was a public service, such as the building of roads or the healing of the sick, yet according to the information commissioner, this is not a public service, it relates to the functions and activities of Ministers, not as Ministers but as members of a political party.
Depending on your sense of insecurity you could regard this eavesdropping as either sinister or entirely pointless. That the taxpayer should subvent this exercise, however, when we have been authoritatively told that it is carried out entirely for party political purposes, raises serious questions about the legitimacy of this as an item of public expenditure.
To give an example of the kind of thing revealed in the appeal to the information commissioner, the director of this press unit sent the Taoiseach a note with a clipping from the News of the World which says: “Taoiseach, our old friends in the News of the World like you, I think! I would suggest that you might drop them a note and thank them for their support.”. The News of the World is approving of a Fianna Fáil Taoiseach; Mr. de Valera would turn in his grave.
The next note concerns a report that the Minister, Deputy O'Rourke, spoke for five minutes and 30 seconds on “Morning Ireland” and was interrupted nine times by the interviewer, Áine Lawlor. Anyone who interrupts the Minister, Deputy O'Rourke, nine times in the course of five and a half minutes is a brave person. It seems we are getting to the stage that if David Hanley laughs during an interview, which he may do given the bags which was made of the Luas system by the Minister, it will be in a note from Mr. Marty Whelan to the Taoiseach. The report also stated that Deputy Emmet Stagg got five minutes and 45 seconds, largely uninterrupted.
The notion that the taxpayer should have to pay for this party political unit is ridiculous. The rainbow coalition employed people for the express reason that our party political ethos and approach to policy questions were different. This is not about policy, it is about eavesdropping on what the media and telecommunications have to say about any given Minister. The notion that Marty Whelan is sitting in some secluded part of Government Buildings with a slide rule measuring the number of column inches the fashion correspondent in the Sunday World writes about the Taoiseach—
Mr. Rabbitte: I am reluctant about it as well. I ask the Minister to indicate that if this unit is to  be kept in place it will not be funded by the State. I make no imputation against the very amiable person who heads the unit. It is an irony that he has ended up spying on the rest of us for Fianna Fáil but such are the ironies of progress in political life.
Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform (Mr. Fahey): The communications unit is designed to service all Government Ministers and to improve and expand the services provided by the Government Information Service. The unit provides a comprehensive information service to Government Ministers and their Departments on Government policy initiatives and developments and alerts them to any problems which may arise in relation to their implementation. In this way Departments will be 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. Throughout the day the unit provides Ministers and their Departments with a detailed and comprehensive service, ensuring that Government Departments are kept informed in a fast and efficient manner of any relevant news developments.
The full year cost of the unit to the Department of the Taoiseach is approximately £72,000. This covers the manager's salary, shift allowances paid to staff and other general administrative costs. There are five members of staff seconded from other Departments whose salaries are paid by their parent Departments while the Department of the Taoiseach pays shift allowances amounting to one sixth of each officer's salary. The staff on secondment are not additional to overall Civil Service numbers and therefore there is no extra cost to the Exchequer for these staff. In a Dáil reply to Deputies Quinn and Bruton on 10 February, the Taoiseach mentioned a global figure for staff costs of £141,651. It is important to be precise here – this is the total cost to the Exchequer. I remind the Deputy, however, that the salaries of the staff on loan to the Department of the Taoiseach continue to be paid by their parent Departments. Therefore, the actual cost to the Department is only £72,000. Although these staff members have been loaned to the Department of the Taoiseach, they have not been replaced in their parent Departments and therefore this does not give rise to an increase in Civil Service numbers.
The work of the communications unit ensures that the costs are reduced across Government Departments. It is conservatively estimated that through the work of the communications unit, Government Departments have made savings of approximately £120,000 in the past year. There are further savings to the Exchequer as a result  of the co-ordination role of the unit in providing information services to Departments and through the elimination of duplicate transcribing services.
Last year Deputy Hogan and The Sunday Times, under the Freedom of Information Act, separately requested copies of all the correspondence, including memoranda, notes, letters etc., between the communications unit in the Department and the Taoiseach. The Department released 859 pages of records to Deputy Hogan and withheld 14 records. Subsequently the Department released a further three records, thereby withholding only 11 records.
It is the view of the Department of the Taoiseach that these records contain opinions, assessments and advice prepared for the Taoiseach in his capacity as a member of a political party and come within the definition of exempt records as set out in section 2(1)(a) of the Freedom of Information Act which refers to: “a record created for or held by an office holder and relates to the functions or activities of the office holder as a member of a political party”.
Likewise, the Information Commissioner, whom the Deputy will be aware is independent and impartial, on foot of a request from Deputy Phil Hogan and The Sunday Times newspaper seeking a review of the Department of the Taoiseach's decision to refuse access to these documents under the Freedom of Information Act, decided last week, under section 34(2) of the Freedom of Information Act, as follows:
Having carried out a review of the decision of the Department of the Taoiseach and having considered the arguments put to me by the Department and the requesters, I am satisfied that records numbers 4 to 14 inclusive were created for the Taoiseach in his capacity as the head of a political party and the Department's claim that the records are exempt by virtue of section 2 is justified. Therefore I affirm the decisions of the Department of the Taoiseach of 14 August 1998 and 9 October 1998 to the extent that they relate to these records.
However, I have considered whether the fact that the record was created by someone paid out of public money is relevant in deciding whether the exemption in Section 2 applies. In my view it is one factor, but only one, which needs to be taken into account. It may suggest that the record was prepared for the office holder in his capacity as office holder. I think that such a suggestion must, however, be viewed against the very significant changes which have taken place in the legislation governing the appointment of civil servants. Section 19 of the Public Office Act, 1995 and section 11 of the Public Service Management  Act, 1997 have now regulated the position of special Advisors to Ministers and Ministers of State. In performing their duties they are not excluded, as are civil servants, from providing advice to an office holder in his or her role as a member of the Oireachtas or a political party. The creator of the records under review is a special advisor to the Taoiseach. In making a judgment as to whether the records relate to the functions of or activities of the office holder as a member of a political party rather than as an office holder I must have regard to the contents of the records and, having done so, I am satisfied that they are exempt.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: The next two items, relating to the suspension of the remainder of a sentence in respect of an individual convicted of dangerous driving, by Deputies Jim Higgins and Brendan Howlin are being taken together. Each Deputy will have five minutes and the Minister will have ten minutes to reply.
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