Tuesday, 20 May 2008
Dáil Eireann Debate
4. Deputy Enda Kenny asked 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. [3567/08]
5. Deputy Eamon Gilmore asked the Taoiseach the progress made to date in 2008 regarding the work of the interdepartmental group chaired by his Department which was established to monitor the appointment of public relations consultants by other Government Departments; if the group continues to operate; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [4657/08]
6. Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin asked the Taoiseach if the working group established in his Department to monitor the awarding of contracts to public relations consultants by Government Departments is operating; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [15227/08]
These questions relate to the findings of the Quigley report, which was published in 2005. That report highlighted the need for special care in cases where a proposed consultancy comprises an element of direct service to a Minister or Minister of State, particularly in the public relations or communications areas, and-or where a Minister or a Minister of State suggests the name of a person or enterprise as being suitable.
As my predecessor previously outlined, following publication of the Quigley report, additional procurement guidelines were approved by the Government and are published on my Department’s website. The guidelines 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 and Ministers of State, where relevant, in their Departments or offices.
The guidelines give the Secretary General to the Government and the Government secretariat a role in examining certain procurements. However, there is neither a special unit in my Department nor an interdepartmental group chaired by it to oversee the awarding of public relations contracts by Ministers. Any workload arising from the application of these additional procedures is handled, within existing resources, by the Government secretariat.
Deputy Enda Kenny: An inquiry previously took place into the current Minister for Arts, Sports and Tourism, Deputy Cullen, and allegations regarding the awarding of contracts within one of the Departments in which he formerly served. Following this inquiry, a new system was put in place for new Ministers and Ministers of State that any public relations or other contracts would have to be approved by the Department of the Taoiseach.
The Taoiseach recently appointed some new Ministers and Ministers of State. Have any changes been introduced in respect of public relations contracts since those appointments were made? Have new Ministers or Ministers of State made inquiries about this matter with the Taoiseach in line with the recommendations of the inquiry to which I refer regarding how any new contracts might be awarded?
It appears the Government will be spending €35 million in two areas over a period. Some €15 million will be spent on matters relating to climate change, while a further €20 million —€3 million of it this year — will be spent during the period of Transport 21.
I do not know how the Taoiseach feels but for me there are very few things as frustrating as sitting at traffic lights which turn green three times without the traffic moving, yet there are 40 ft. by 80 ft. billboards indicating the Government is spending €34 billion on Transport 21. That €20 million on public relations about Transport 21 will not build one extra school where people have been waiting 15 years in some cases. It will not provide an extra bed or ameliorate any traffic jam at street corners.
The Taoiseach is now in charge of the country, having previously been in charge of the Department of Finance, and he must tighten up on this. Is there a need to spend €20 million telling the people that the Government expects to spend €34 billion on Transport 21 when people are sitting in traffic, frustrated and giving out? It would be far better to use that money on the relief of blockages in the health or education systems.
There is little point in having 40 ft. by 80 ft. billboards indicating spending of €34 billion when a person is stuck at the Red Cow roundabout, or elsewhere, with the traffic lights going green three times without traffic moving. There would be a strong measure of cross-party support for cutting down seriously on what is an obscene waste of money in many respects. Telling the people about spending €34 billion through huge billboards and other media campaigns while they are not moving in traffic does not seem to be good value for the taxpayers’ money.
The Taoiseach: Were that true, it might be a point, but only €3 million has been allocated this year in assisting to bring to people’s attention Transport 21, what it means and what it will do for people. It is not a question of €20 million being spent.
The Taoiseach: No allocations whatever are agreed for 2009 to 2011, inclusive, and these matters must be reviewed on a constant basis. I have indicated to colleagues that this is an area in which I will expect a report. I will make the point before everybody goes off thinking €20 million is being spent, that it is not.
Deputy Eamon Gilmore: Under the Quigley report, there was a recommendation that where public relations or communications consultancy work was to be obtained by a Minister, and where that was of either direct service to the Minister or where the Minister was recommending a particular consultant to be appointed, the matter was to be notified to the Secretary General of the Government, who would then set in motion a certain procedure.
On how many occasions has the Secretary General to the Government been notified by a Minister in the circumstances I have described arising from the Quigley report? How often has the Secretary General been notified of such appointments?
In respect of the two public relations campaigns referred to by Deputy Kenny, Transport 21 and climate change, both of these are of no value whatever in terms of public information. Their only value is the benefit of self promotion to the Ministers concerned. Were those campaigns notified to the Secretaries General of the Departments before they were engaged in?
The Taoiseach: I was asked how many cases have been referred to the Government secretariat under the additional procedures. Six cases coming within the terms of the guidelines have been processed so far. Two of the cases related to the appointment of an arts adviser in the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism. My predecessor approved an appointment in 2005, following appropriate prior consideration by the Secretary General to the Government. When the original post holder resigned, my predecessor approved the appointment of a successor to the post in 2006.
In 2007, a case was noted by my predecessor following consideration by the Secretary General to the Government. It related to an invitation to tender for consultancy work in the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. The work involved an examination of the possibility of developing a project that would lead to the establishment of an independent electoral commission. I understand that the candidate concerned was subsequently unsuccessful in the tender competition.
The three other cases which were referred to the Secretary General to the Government were, on consideration by him, found not to fall within the scope of the guidelines and so did not require consideration and approval. The three cases related to the appointment of information technology, public relations and communications consultants.
Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Is the Taoiseach aware that the last time the House discussed this matter on Question Time, approximately a year ago, his predecessor said the Quigley report, which was published in 2005, highlighted the need for additional care? The then Taoiseach said that such attention is particularly needed in cases in which there may be a suggestion that a Minister or Minister of State might have an element of direct service through procurement arrangements in areas like public relations and communications. Does the Taoiseach recall his predecessor’s comment on that occasion that additional procurement procedures had been approved by the Government? Are all such procedures now in place? Are they being strictly adhered to? Can the Taoiseach confirm that €60 million was spent on public relations and consultancy services by the Departments in 2004, which is the last year for which I was able to dig out figures? The Quigley report was published a year later, in 2005. Does the Taoiseach have figures for the Government’s expenditure on consultancy services in 2005, 2006 and 2007?
The Taoiseach will be aware that this process was initiated on foot of concerns which were expressed about the close association between the Government parties, particularly Fianna Fáil, and those involved in public relations and consultancy firms. The House will recall that €3.315 million was spent on such aspects of the launch of the electronic voting system, even though the roll-out of that system was later abandoned by the Government. The companies that benefited from those arrangements were Q4 Public Relations and McCann Erickson. Is the Taoiseach aware that a former general secretary of Fianna Fáil, Martin Mackin, and a former adviser to the Taoiseach, Jackie Gallagher, are directors of Q4 Public Relations? Such details comprise the background to all of this matter.
Can the Taoiseach give the House a clear indication that, since the publication of the Quigley report, there has been a stricter adherence to the rules set out in that report? Has an effort been made to curtail the extent of the Government’s engagement with external private consultancy firms? Is there now a greater concentration on the Government press office and the individual press entities within Departments? Is the Government less dependent on external agencies? What is the intent of the new Taoiseach in this area?
The Taoiseach: The Deputy’s questions relate to the implementation of the Quigley report. I assure him that it is being implemented. The report’s recommendations were adopted by the Government and the Secretaries General of the various Departments were informed. I explained the procedure in my initial reply. That is that; that is the way it is. It is a matter of ministerial choice. I have observed people in successive Governments working with people within Departments and with people outside Departments. It is a matter of personal choice. Obviously it must be in line with approval of the Department of Finance regarding salary levels etc. That is a transparent process. I do not understand the reference to individuals who are engaged in business now. They are subject to the same procurement arrangements as everyone else. If they get the tender, they get it and if they do not get it, they do not get it. I do not see the purpose of that intervention. Anyway I do not question the professionalism of any of those people who may be employed from time to time by Departments to do specific jobs. They have been employed by various Ministers of all parties from time to time where circumstances require them. As the Deputy has said there are also skill sets within the public service which I, personally, have always utilised.
An Ceann Comhairle: On the second question in each case I did not allow a supplementary question because we are running out of time. The same applied to Deputies Kenny and Gilmore. I am now applying the same procedure to you.
Deputy Enda Kenny: I return to the €20 million being spent on public relations for Transport 21. The Taoiseach tried to portray it as if €20 million is not being spent on it. My understanding is that over the period of that plan it is proposed to spend €20 million on telling the people about the great plans for Transport 21. I welcome what appears to be a reversal of policy here or a climb down, if one likes, when he said that no expenditure is allocated for the years from 2009 onwards. I would welcome him taking the money back from the public relations and putting it into the 20 school buildings that have fallen off the back end of the waiting list. I heard Deputy Quinn say here one night that the Department of Education and Science did not know how many prefabricated buildings were being used in schools in the country. Instead of telling people who are stuck in traffic about the €34 billion being spent on Transport 21, that money would be very welcome for school buildings. If that is what he is saying, I welcome it and I will support him in transferring money from public relations about Transport 21 into much needed school buildings, where children in some places are going to schools in converted toilets.
Deputy Eamon Gilmore: I wish to come back to the reply the Taoiseach gave me that the Transport 21 and climate change advertisements did not come under the Quigley report, because he said they were not a service to the Ministers concerned. What are they for? Both those advertisements basically suggest we are marvellous to spend all this money on transport and to do all we are doing for climate change. They are clearly political advertisements dressed up as some kind of public information. What is the benefit of those advertisements to the public? As the public are paying for them, what are they getting from the Transport 21 advertisements? They add nothing to the value of public information and do not provide material information the public would want to have. These advertisements are purely about promoting the Government.
Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: The former Taoiseach had indicated that special care needed to be exercised. That was part of the intent of the Quigley report. That is why I made the particular reference to individuals in public relations consultancy roles. Special care needs to be exercised where they have strong associations — past or present — with the current Government parties. In his reply the Taoiseach stated to me that it is up to the personal choice of individual Ministers and Departments. Surely that is not what it should be. Surely there should be a clear policy position of intent. The Taoiseach should be indicating across the board that, in the first instance, there should be a dependency on each of the respective publicity offices, PROs, or whatever phraseology applies in the Departments, and on the Government press secretary, before any consideration is given to outside professional, paid PR consultancy firms.
The Taoiseach: I am simply making the point that the choice of press officer is a matter for the Minister and procedures and processes are in place by which that appointment is made. The appointment can be internal or external. I do not know what the Deputy’s point is, but procurement rules and procedures are observed in all cases. That is the way it is. I am sure Deputy Ó Caoláin would agree that past association should not be a disqualification for anybody.
Transport 21 is an important infrastructural investment programme. We are communicating to the public the progress of the projects. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that; it is public information. We are reporting on the managing of impact during construction. I am sure Members would decry in this House the fact that public information was not being made available about where construction was taking place at various interchanges. A lot of good work has been done on the M50 and at other interchanges. A proactive approach is being taken to let people know what is happening and how it will impact on them getting to work every morning. I presume that is a public benefit. We inform the public about possible disruption and the impacts of individual projects before they occur.
We also have campaigns to increase awareness of public transport modes as we make the investments to make sure people are aware of them and will use them. We have seen the benefit of that approach with the development of the Luas lines and the numbers who use public transport. An extension of the Luas network is envisaged in Cherrywood and, I hope, in the docklands next year or the following year. Important information needs to be provided to citizens on an ongoing basis about the impact of Transport 21 in terms of their own convenience, their ability to get to work and how those projects impact on their locality. People are entitled to be made aware that the money is being well spent and that many of the projects are coming in within budget and on time or even before time.
That is the thrust of what is being worked on, so that the public is made aware of the €34 billion process and how it will interact in their daily lives. That is the purpose of the ongoing campaigns. In many respects they have been very good at that, especially, for example, in terms of the inconvenience to transport users coming to Dublin when major works were taking place at the Red Cow. All of that work has to be communicated to the public and done in a professional way that is to their benefit.
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