Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - Report on Contraception.

1.

asked the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs if his attention has been drawn to a report (details supplied) that advice about public reaction in Ireland to contraception was supplied by a university department in Scotland to the Government and that this information was issued by a civil servant; and if he will make a full statement on the matter in the light of the political statements attributed in the report to the civil servant in question.

2.

asked the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs if his attention has been drawn to reports (copy supplied) concerning communications between his Department and a foreign university; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

3.

asked the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs if any person employed by the RTE Authority is also employed to supply information to the Government on public attitudes regarding the availability of contraceptives.

I propose, a Cheann Comhairle, with your permission, to take Questions Nos. 1, 2 and 3 together.

My attention has been drawn to the reports mentioned. Advice about public reaction in Ireland to contraception was not supplied by a university department in Scotland to the Government. The facts underlying the reports are as follows. I learned that the Economic and Social Research Institute carried out last year a survey of family patterns in Ireland as part of a research project by a Scottish university department, and that a questionnaire issued in the course of it to a large random sample of married women included questions as to their views on (a) whether the Government should repeal the ban on contraceptives and (b) to what extent contraceptives should be made available, if the ban were repealed. I instructed an officer in my Department who has experience of, and contacts in, the field of opinion research to ascertain informally from the university department where the results were being tabulated, what the responses were to these two questions. It appeared to me as a member of the Government having to consider such issues that the information might be a useful indication of public opinion. The university department gave the information readily, and, subsequently, on a suggestion which originated from me, released it to the Press.

As regards the statements attributed in one newspaper report to the officer who contacted the Scottish university department, it is obvious that they are extracts from a personal letter, the publication of which was neither intended nor authorised. In the circumstances I do not propose to comment on them, except to say that the officer acted throughout in accordance with my instructions.

Is it in order for a civil servant to give information of this kind which he, apparently, obtained for his Minister to a Member of the Seanad for the purpose, and I quote from memory, of stiffening the Senator's resolve to support Senator Robinson's Bill on contraception and to support the Government's proposals with regard to contraception?

There should not be any reference to the Members of the other House here.

The remark in question was made in the course of an informal letter which was not intended for publication. The officer in question acted on my instructions in obtaining this information from the people who had carried out the survey. I conveyed it to the Senator in question and the reference in the letter was a reference to the fact that the Senator in question, like other democratic Members of the Oireachtas, does take into consideration the views of the members of the public as ascertained in public opinion polls and by other means.

Does the Minister not deny that he used a civil servant who is paid by the taxpayer in order to achieve a political objective of his own, in order to try to convince Members of the Seanad and, it would appear also other members of the Government, of the correctness or relevancy of the views which he, the Minister, held with regard to this particular topic?

I believe there was a good deal of support in the country, particularly among married women of child-bearing age, for a change in the laws and I was certainly prepared to convey to other members of the Government information which pointed in that direction.

We had better wait for the debate on that particular Bill.

We are debating the civil servant and the propriety of his action. Am I correct in believing that the civil servant who was used in this political fashion is a man who was brought into the Department of Posts and Telegraphs as an adviser on broadcasting? Would the Minister tell the House what function an adviser on broadcasting to the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs has in "trying to stiffen the resolve of Senators" or of other members of the Government?

I would not agree with the Deputy's formulation of the question. The officer in question who has had considerable experience of public opinion surveys was instructed by me to ascertain certain information regarding this kind of survey.

In what capacity?

In my capacity as a member of the Government and I am, of course, among other things, responsible for information which is essentially a two-way process. I can understand that some of the remarks made in the course of this letter could have been interpreted as political status. For example, in the course of the letter he says:

Fianna Fáil have, of course, an older age profile in their support.

That could be taken by Deputies opposite as a political remark. However, it really is not a political remark, it is a statistical and sociological remark. It has long-term political implications but the civil servant did not know that. I am responsible for what was done and if Deputies opposite wish to attack me that is their privilege.

Deputy O'Malley has not been given an answer to his question. I should like to ask the Minister if it is not a fact that the officer in question was, according to the Minister at the time of this officer's appointment, appointed to assist the Minister and advise him in regard to broadcasting. If that is so would the Minister explain how this officer came to be involved in other activities bearing no relation to advising on broadcasting and if he was so engaged would the Minister explain whether he was trying to mislead the House when he told the House that this officer was appointed to assist in broadcasting?

The officer in question was seconded to my Department to act as my adviser on broadcasting and it is in that function that he mainly operates. He also has certain relevant experience which I thought would be useful to me in this area. The operations of this Government are not so compartmentalised, nor were they in the previous Government, that it is absolutely forbidden to request an officer who is mainly there for one particular function to help in some other thing which may be of value to the Government, the State and the public.

Further——

We cannot have a debate on this question.

The Minister took three questions together.

Already I have allowed ten minutes to these questions.

May I take it from the reply that the correspondence referred to in the newspaper was correspondence engaged in in a private and personal capacity by an officer of the Minister's Department but who was acting on the Minister's instructions?

The officer in question was acting on my instructions in doing a job that I instructed him to do. The form of his letter— it was an informal letter—was never intended for publication. It is surprising that people should have taken it on themselves to publish that letter. The language used by the official in the letter was his own and not directed by me; but I do not think that, legitimately, anybody could take offence at it or consider it such as to contstitute an impropriety. That would not be the view of the Civil Service and, certainly, it is not my view.

Did the Minister or the Government take any steps towards checking the accuracy or otherwise of the report before being influenced by it?

I do not know to what extent anybody has been influenced by it. Both bodies involved in carrying out the survey are reputable bodies and I am sure they did their best to conduct an accurate survey. However, as Deputies are aware, all public opinion surveys are liable to error and this one may have been in error to some extent. I have no reason to think that it was in error but neither have I any way of knowing. It is very difficult to measure these results unless one is prepared, himself, to carry out exactly the same poll.

Deputy Ahern rose.

I must advise Deputies that there are more questions on the Order Paper than those three. Deputy Wilson, for a final supplementary.

Can the Minister say whether the officer in question, who was acting on the Minister's instructions, was acting for the Minister personally or for the Government? In other words, was he acting with the knowledge and consent of the Government?

He was acting for the Minister who, in turn, was acting with the knowledge and consent of the Government to which he reported.

On this question?

May I ask the Minister——

I have called Question No. 4.

——whether he or the writer of the letter had it published?

The Chair has called Question No. 4. The Chair must be obeyed by both sides of the House.

Forgive me, a Cheann Comhairle, but the question was heard and I think I should be allowed to answer. The initiative in publishing the letter in question was taken by the newspaper. Neither I nor the official concerned had hand or part in authorising in any way publication of the letter.

(Interruptions.)

The country awaits the stand of the Deputies opposite on the coming Bill.

The Deputy's party do not know where they stand on that issue.