Written Answers. - Departmental Correspondence.
1045 Mr. N. Ahern asked the Minister for Education and Science the procedure, system and resources used in his Department for replying to correspondence from Members of the Oireachtas; the staff numbers involved; if the numbers have been reduced since freedom of information requests were introduced; if staff were diverted to freedom of information cases; if a tracking or follow up system exists; if there is a rule or guideline for sending replies other than acknowledgements; the standard in this regard; the way in which it is monitored; his views on whether responding to requests from Oireachtas Members is an integral part of the democratic system; and if he has any proposals to improve this service. [20056/00]
Representations made to me by Members of the Oireachtas are recorded in my private office on a lotus notes system. An acknowledgement issues to the correspondent and the papers are transmitted to the appropriate section of my Department for the preparation of a draft reply.
The data recorded includes the name of the correspondent, the nature of the query, the date of receipt, the date an acknowledgement was issued and the name of the officer to whom the correspondence was sent. Individual line sections of the Department that receive large volumes of representations also have their own tracking system in place.
In the line sections, draft replies are normally prepared by the member of staff dealing with the administration of the various schemes, programmes and operations which are the subject of the correspondence, or by higher officers where the subject of the correspondence is complex or impinges on policy.
The clerical staff in my office are responsible for tracking the replies and issuing reminders to sections where replies are overdue.
The volume of representations and the diverse nature of the subject matter is such that only the staff on the ground dealing with the issues are in a position to prepare replies to the queries raised by Oireachtas Members. Freedom of information queries are dealt with in a similar manner.
Members will be aware that the Public Service Executive Union in my Department was engaged in industrial action from January until April of this year in pursuit of a staffing claim. The industrial action included an instruction to union members not to answer representations from public representatives. The backlog of representations from this period, coupled with the normal volume of representations made on a daily basis since the cessation of the industrial action has led to a very large backlog, which can only be eliminated by the allocation of additional staffing resources to the task, both at central level and in the line sections. To meet these needs the Government has approved the appointment of over 100 extra staff.
My Department's overall aim, in accordance with our customer service statement, is to reply to all correspondence within a period of 21 days and where this cannot be done, to issue an acknowledgement. In the case of representations from Members of the Oireachtas, there is a general instruction that an interim reply should issue if a final reply cannot be issued within a reasonable timeframe.
Unfortunately, it is not possible for existing staff to comply with these targets at present. A significant number of vacancies exist in my Department in the clerical and administrative grades, and existing staff are under considerable strain in seeking to deliver the standard of service to which they aspire. Every effort is being made to fill the vacant positions as quickly as possible. However, Deputies will be aware that Government Departments are facing the same labour market constraints as other sectors at present.
I fully agree with the Deputy that responding to queries from Oireachtas Members is an integral part of the democratic system. In recognition of this fact I have recently assigned an executive officer to liaise with Deputies and Senators on queries relating to my Department. In addition, I will be assigning a higher executive officer to head up a unit with exclusive responsibility for tracking representations from Members of the Oireachtas and ensuring that replies are issued within a reasonable period of time.