I wish to advise Deputy Ahern that the standard practice in my Department for dealing with correspondence received from Members of the Oireachtas is as follows. All correspondence is acknowledged in writing by the staff in my office in the first instance. The correspondence is then issued to the relevant section of the Department for investigation and preparation of reply. It is not possible to quantify the exact number of staff dealing with Oireachtas correspondence at any given time in my Department but I can assure Deputy Ahern that my entire Department is involved at some level in the daily processing of large volumes of Oireachtas correspondence. The replies once drafted are signed off by a senior member of staff in each section before being returned to my office for clearance and issue.
The staff in my office keep a tracking record of when each item of correspondence was received and where each piece of correspondence has issued for follow-up throughout the Department. When the draft reply is returned, it is seen and cleared for issue by the private secretary before being presented to me for signature. I can confirm that no staff have been diverted from dealing with correspondence from Members of the Oireachtas to work on freedom of information cases.
I would like to assure Deputy Ahern that I am firmly of the view that responding to requests from Oireachtas Members is an integral part of the democratic system and that my Department officials and I are constantly striving to bring about an improvement in the processing of and the response time to Oireachtas correspondence. However, I am quite sure that Deputy Ahern will also appreciate the staffing shortages currently being experienced throughout most Government Departments and the regrettable impact which this is having on dealing with correspondence in general, including correspondence from Members of the Oireachtas.
The procedures outlined above apply throughout the entire Department and also encompass all Oireachtas correspondence received in the offices of my ministerial colleagues, Deputies Hanafin and Moffatt, Ministers of State at my Department.