Ceisteanna — Questions.

Departmental Bodies.

Arthur Morgan

Question:

1 Deputy Arthur Morgan asked the Taoiseach the annual cost of running the communications unit within his Department. [28105/07]

Enda Kenny

Question:

2 Deputy Enda Kenny asked the Taoiseach the cost of the communications unit in his Department for the month of October 2007; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [28178/07]

Eamon Gilmore

Question:

3 Deputy Eamon Gilmore asked the Taoiseach the costs incurred by the communications unit of his Department in terms of salaries and expenses for the first ten months of 2007; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [29417/07]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, together.

The total costs incurred by the communications unit in respect of the month of October 2007 was €26,773, with €10,815 being a direct cost to my Department and €3,192 on average being borne by the five other Departments who have staff seconded to the unit. The total cost incurred by the unit for the first ten months of 2007 is €311,270, with €144,698 being a direct cost to the Department of the Taoiseach and €33,314 on average being borne by the five other Departments who have staff seconded to the unit. The estimated annual cost for the communications unit in 2007 is €385,398.

The unit provides a media information service to Government Ministers and their Departments. It furnishes news updates and transcripts which ensure that Departments are kept informed in a fast and efficient manner of any relevant news developments. In this way, Departments are 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. The unit is staffed by six established civil servants, five of whom are seconded from other Departments. The work of the unit means that Departments have greatly reduced their use of external companies and ensure that they no longer duplicate work such as transcripts and tapes.

Given that the communications unit in the Taoiseach's Department is staffed by established civil servants and that it provides a news monitoring service not only to his Department, but to other Ministers and Departments, can it not be arranged that its product, its news monitoring service, should be made available through the Oireachtas Library and for all Members to have equal access to the information it supplies? As the response indicates, substantial public moneys are involved in the provision of this service. Is it not, therefore, appropriate that the communications unit's reportage and updatings should be open to all Members equally so that we would enjoy the same access to information that it provides to the Taoiseach and his colleagues at Cabinet? I think it is appropriate that this should be done. While the Taoiseach has answered in the negative on this matter on many occasions, he has failed on every occasion to explain why it cannot be done. If he will not do it, will the Taoiseach please explain the reason to the House?

There are two reasons. The first is that work done by civil servants is not made open to the entire House. This is similar to all other work done by civil servants in their professional capacity. Second, all the parties in the House receive considerable aid for their own press offices.

With all respect, there is hardly any great secrecy around items which are news. This is something to which we have general access through the reportage of our friends in the Fourth Estate. Surely it is a very reasonable request that, in order to establish equality of membership of this House and the associate Chamber, the information flow, the reports from the communications unit, should be put on the internal Oireachtas website so that Members could enjoy the same access as the Taoiseach and his colleagues in Cabinet. We are all paying for this. These are established civil servants. It is long past time that the information flow they provide in relation to breaking news and updating of stories should be openly and transparently available to all elected Members in both these Houses. The Taoiseach's response fails to indicate adequately the reason, other than, I suggest, a stubborn holding on to something which he is not prepared to share. I ask him to elaborate on his position.

As I stated, this is not work done by the Oireachtas Commission. If it were, it would be open to anybody. Any work done within Government Departments is for the Government and in this case the staff of those Departments as well as Ministers. The Deputy is right in that this is communications data, but on that basis everything would be provided by all civil servants. On that basis, Sinn Féin would have to give me its communications and intelligence unit information, which would be far more interesting than this.

We could arrange an interview for the Taoiseach with An Phoblacht.

Deputy Fergus O'Dowd submitted a freedom of information request about the output of the communications unit in mid-June to see if it flagged the Irish Examiner story of 13 June which stated that Aer Lingus was to introduce new routes from Belfast. That announcement, as everybody will be aware, led to the cessation of flights from Shannon and the transfer of the slots to the Belfast-Heathrow route.

In that request Deputy O'Dowd was told that the communications unit did not inform the Taoiseach of the article in question. However, in the report entitled "Report to the Minister for Transport on the circumstances surrounding the Aer Lingus decision on the Shannon-Heathrow link" produced by the Secretary General of the Department of Transport, Ms Julie O'Neill, we see that the Secretary General was aware of the article of 13 June and she made others aware of it. That begs a number of questions. First, what is the point in having a communications unit that does not see an article with as significant a consequence as this?

Second, is the Taoiseach aware that the communications unit missed not only the Irish Examiner report but also the Irish Independent coverage of that story? Does the Taoiseach find it a little strange, or certainly unusual, that while the communications unit reported and highlighted articles from the Irish Examiner and the Irish Independent of 11 and 12 June, for some strange reason it did not highlight any article from 13 June where, clearly, in two newspapers, there were references to this story? What is the point in having a communications unit that appears to be selective or that, for some unusual reason, missed one of the major stories of the summer?

It is frankly incredible that a Secretary General of a major Department would not keep a Minister properly informed on an ongoing basis of what is happening. For the short period I was in the Department across the road the Secretary General was in the office ten times a day stating I should be informed of the consequences of this written question or an incident that happened. The question for the communications unit and, indeed, for the Taoiseach relates to when the Secretary General of this major Department became aware of this story. What is the difference between her being informed and the Minister not being informed? The Emergency Powers — No. 144 — Order 1942 referred to this matter and the question raised was:

Here the State, by the instrumentality of the Government, was the acquiring entity". Was ‘the State' the same as a ‘government department'?

I realise this is straying a little from the communications unit, but under company law all shareholders would have been notified of the consequence and if the Secretary General was informed or became aware, through the communications unit or by some other method, and the Minister was left in the dark, was the Government informed by virtue of the fact that the Department knew?

The media monitoring unit in my Department disseminates a summary of radio and television news headlines. It does not list everything in every newspaper every day. Of course it will always pick up the headlines, major stories and, for that matter, editorial stories.

They missed it that day.

It forwards newspaper headlines on a regular basis to a wide range of people across Departments. That is what it does a number of times every day.

The Aer Lingus decision on the establishment of a hub in Belfast and the withdrawal of Shannon-Heathrow services was announced by the company on 7 August. The position is no reports of the decision came to the attention of the communications unit in my Department in advance of the company's announcement on 7 August. It picked it up on 7 August, but it did not pick it up in the northern newspapers, which it does not monitor, or in the Irish Examiner earlier than that.

That is an Irish newspaper. It is not a northern newspaper or a southern one, it is an Irish newspaper.

I said the northern newspapers and the Irish Examiner.

That is great value for money.

The heading from the Irish Examiner of 13 June is “Aer Lingus hub plans could mean 1,000 jobs for Belfast”. The public is paying for a communications unit. This is a major story. It is followed on the same day by another headline, “Donaldson urges Aer Lingus to use Belfast”, yet the personnel working in the communications unit did not see this. The Taoiseach stated it was reported on 7 August, but it was in leading articles in the newspapers on 13 June.

They were not leading articles, and Deputy Kenny knows that.

Anybody monitoring——

What page was it on?

It was in the Irish Examiner and the Irish Independent.

The Secretary General of the Department had it at 8.28 a.m. that morning.

The Secretary General of the Department had it. Was she informed by the communications unit or by some other method? Certainly, she was wise to what was going on.

The Taoiseach has not answered the second question about whether information given to the Secretary General is informing the Government because she is Secretary General of a Department.

Was anybody in the communications unit asked specifically why these two stories with major implications, which caused so much rumpus during the summer and which will cause so many economic consequences in the mid-west, were missed by the communications unit? Why were these two articles from both newspapers not circulated to the Minister in June, long before this came to a head in August, when he stated he was not informed about it until the weekend before?

It was not picked up by the communications unit. It was not listed as one of its stories of the day, even though it had a long list of stories that day. It was in the Irish Examiner and the Belfast Telegraph. That was seen by the Department but, as we know now from the reports that the Minister, Deputy Dempsey, has, the Department did not believe at that stage that that was a major story. It did not believe, even on 7 August, that it would be a major story.

We do not believe the Taoiseach's story.

Most of the people do not believe him anymore, according to the recent indications, if they are of any value — I am not sure he places too much credence on them. The communications unit is supposed to take relevant current affairs issues and, apparently, circulate them to Ministers so that they are well informed. Here are two pages from two major newspapers in the Republic and, for some reason, the communications unit reported on 11 and 12 June, but missed 13 June. That is, if not coincidental, very strange. I do not know whether the Taoiseach has asked the head of the communications unit why this was passed over, or was it just one of those mornings?

It takes a range of the stories of the day and covers all the major stories.

It did not cover the big story.

I looked at where that was in the newspaper. If it was to list every heading and item across the national newspapers——

I understand that.

——that was not in a position of prominence. Even on this morning's list it would probably have approximately 15 headlines.

It did not cover the Irish Examiner at all that day.

I am not sure, but I think it did.

If not, I gave the FOI request on the issue. It normally covers The Irish Times, the Irish Independent and the Irish Examiner.

It did not normally cover this one.

Even if it took the Irish Examiner that day——

It would have missed it.

——the article was not in a prominent position. It would probably take seven or eight stories, not 30 or 40 stories.

If it did, it would not be a brief summary. That is the point.

If issues appeared in the newspapers that were relevant or had some implication for his Department when he was in positions in the lower Ministries, for example, as Minister for Labour or Minister for Finance, I am quite sure that the Secretary General would have said that the then Minister, Deputy Ahern, should be aware of this newspaper article and that he did not know whether it was real or relevant. The Minister would have been informed and I am quite sure that the Minister for Transport, Deputy Dempsey, was so informed.

Sometimes that happens.

The Minister for Health and Children stated that, until last Wednesday, she did not know of the review of ultrasounds in Portlaoise. Sometime beforehand, newspapers had reported that such a review was being carried out. Did the communications unit miss that story as well or was it communicated to the Department of Health and Children?

My difficulty in this regard and with the Taoiseach's reply to Deputy Kenny is that the communications unit seems to be doing no more than scanning the headlines and providing a service to Departments that they could easily get by clicking onto any number of websites to see the day's news headlines. When we put it to the Taoiseach previously that the unit, for which the taxpayer pays €400,000 per year, was effectively a political operation and that it was in place to provide political spying and reporting on the press and critics of the Government, he told the House that it provided a great public service and would provide information to Departments alerting them of stories in newspapers concerning important public events. It is not a scanning-the-headlines job. It is trawling the newspapers and finding the stories, whether in respect of Aer Lingus at Shannon or the ultrasounds review, to alert Departments and Ministers.

Is this outfit, which costs almost €400,000 per year, doing its job properly? Given the Taoiseach's answer, it is difficult to know what it does for 18 hours per day, which is a long time to read newspapers, and for the money in question if it is not doing what we suspect it of doing, namely, finding out how many times Professor John Crown appears on RTE and reporting such to the Minister for Health and Children.

I have explained many times what the unit does. It is not a political outfit.

The Taoiseach must be joking. That is unbelievable.

Now you see it, now you do not.

It is not like party press offices that misrepresent statements in the House every day. That is not its function. Even if Deputy Gilmore believes it is a matter of someone in a Department just clicking on websites, then someone must be doing that. It is what the people in the communications unit do. They send back someone else's data. This is why they have been seconded to the unit. The data cannot click itself over to the Department without someone being there to do it. Let us not be silly about the issue.

Would the Taoiseach run that by us again?

They do not communicate every single headline in every newspaper everyday, only when asked. Before, every Department used outside agencies to get interviews, tapes and cassettes, costing the State a fortune. The unit monitors, keeps the data and does scripts, saving the State a large amount of money. Ten years ago when it was done the old way, we spent nearly as much money as we are spending now. The unit is saving money, but it does not list every single story. It gives information to Secretaries General, assistant principal officers and a range of people. Reporting every single headline would be meaningless.

It handles the main headlines of the day fairly well. I scan the report early every morning and it is a fairly good assessment of news headlines, but it will not go to page 17, 18 or 15 to take up every single heading. It has never done so because that would defeat its purpose.

There are not too many vacancies in that Department.

I did not take down the Taoiseach's reply verbatim, but I do not imagine it to be very different from his reply on 26 September, which I have before me. In that reply, he stated:

The communications unit works an 18 hour day based on a flexible rota of three working shifts. The unit is staffed by six established civil servants, five of whom are seconded from other Departments.

According to the Taoiseach, the unit's purpose is to furnish "news updates and transcripts which ensure that Departments are kept informed in a fast and efficient manner of any relevant news developments" so that they may "provide a better service to the public". This is different from doing a summary of headlines everyday and sending clippings to the relevant Departments. These questions have been asked in the House a number of times. The justification for the communications unit given to date was that it is a fast and efficient operation that spots something in a newspaper and alerts the relevant Department. Today, we are being told a different story, namely, that the unit's job is to scan headlines, the purpose of which I do not see.

When we ask why the communications unit, which costs almost €400,000 per year, does not alert Departments to significant issues — the Department of Transport's excuse was that it did not see the newspaper story about Aer Lingus and the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney's excuse was that she did not see the newspaper story about the ultrasound review and was relying on HSE officials to tell Members — the Taoiseach's new answer is that such is not the unit's job.

It does not take 18 hours per day and three shifts to read newspaper headlines and e-mail them to Departments. Why is the taxpayer spending €400,000 per year for a unit that is supposed to alert Departments to significant events when it did not alert them to two of the most significant public events in the Government's lifetime because the stories were on inside pages or in small print, which the unit does not read? It is ludicrous. We have always suspected this unit to be for political purposes.

The unit tots up the number of times Professor Crown or any other critic of the Government appears on radio and sends the information to the Departments so that the political apparatchiks who do not want to see the critics anymore can say that to the news editors.

It is Pravda personified.

I object to everything Deputy Gilmore said. He is entirely wrong and has made a slur on civil servants, namely, that they are doing a job they are not doing.

They are doing what they are told to do by the Taoiseach.

This is a reprehensible attack on civil servants by the leader of the Labour Party. He is entirely wrong.

It is not an attack on civil servants. The Taoiseach is abusing the Civil Service.

He is challenging the ethics of the Civil Service and is entirely wrong. He should withdraw it. The civil servants in this case——

The Taoiseach is politicising the Civil Service.

There is no politicisation. The Deputy is entirely wrong. The account I gave today is the account I have always given. The Deputy is entirely wrong and I give him an opportunity to withdraw a slur on six civil servants who are taking——

There was no slur. This is nonsense.

It is a slur on the civil servants, that they are doing a political job when all they are doing is——

All we are looking for is a breakdown of what they do for 18 hours per day.

——carrying out the function of going through newspapers, giving headlines and tapes where needed and saving a fortune compared to what was spent before. It is an attack on the independence of the Civil Service. It is not becoming of the leader of the Labour Party to make such an attack. I reject it entirely.

Deputies

Hear, hear.

I made no slur.

I want to answer the other questions. The Deputy can think carefully about what he should say because he is wrong.

I am not wrong.

The Deputy is 100% wrong.

I will answer now. I do not need to think about it.

The Deputy will answer when I am finished. He should sit down in the meantime and I will answer his question.

The Taoiseach is not the Ceann Comhairle.

The Deputy is wrong. He has cast a slur on civil servants, which is a disgrace.

(Interruptions).

We must have order.

The Taoiseach is politicising the Civil Service. He is using the Civil Service to do his dirty work.

When things go wrong, he will blame the Civil Service.

Calm must be observed. The Taoiseach will reply and Deputy Gilmore will have a chance to ask another supplementary question. An Taoiseach without interruption.

The communications unit works 18 hours per day. Six civil servants seconded from Departments monitor the headlines, including those on radio, of the day. Its data is available by FOI request, to which Deputy O'Dowd has already referred. The data is regularly sought under FOI in the House. A large number of Deputies put down FOI requests.

It is known precisely how these civil servants function. All senior Civil Service ranks get those sheets, tapes and transcripts every day. It is an apolitical job. I have outlined before in reply to Deputy Kenny how there were protocols and procedures during the general election that kept them outside the political system. To make an accusation and insinuate, as has been done, that they are monitoring or collecting data for any use about anybody is incorrect. They do not do that, not to mind for a political purpose. They do not cover every single headline in every single newspaper.

Obviously, as they missed the important one.

They cover the main stories and positions of the day. That information is available.

I cast no slur on the Civil Service. I never have and I have always respected the independence of the Civil Service. We are very well served by an independent Civil Service. However, the Taoiseach and the Government is abusing the Civil Service.

The use of this communications unit for the assembling of information which is then used in a political way is an abuse of the Civil Service. I stand over that.

Will the Taoiseach recognise that, in his early responses to questions on this matter, he himself placed the civil servants in the communications unit on a par with party political work and activism? It was the Taoiseach in his earlier response to me who said he would only look at it in a situation where we in Sinn Féin, for instance, would share our internal communications.

I would not mind getting a hold of that.

The Taoiseach has repeated this in his responses to Deputies Kenny and Gilmore.

It is the Taoiseach in his responses who has politicised the work of those involved in the communications unit. He is the one who has done the greatest disservice to the independence of the Civil Service in his continuing refusal to respect the right of all Members to the reportage this team of established and well-paid civil servants carries out. It is a function he holds in reserve for himself and his Cabinet colleagues.

It is simply insufficient and is not a proper utilisation of public moneys. In equating the communications unit with his Fianna Fáil publicity team, as he has drawn the analogy with the publicity teams of other parties, it is he who has created the problem. He should recognise the problem he has created and that it is his role and responsibility to apologise. Will the Taoiseach reconsider his stubborn refusal to have the information these public servants provide to him and his colleagues placed on the Oireachtas website so that every Member can have equity of access?

Deputy Ó Caoláin has always sought to misrepresent this matter and he is not doing any differently now.

What I told him this morning is what I have always told him. The communications unit is not working for the Commission of the House of the Oireachtas. It is part of the Civil Service of the State. It is supervised, monitored and answerable to the Civil Service of the State, like any other State office. Any other office of the State does not provide the data it prepares to Members. This data is provided to Ministers and Ministers of State, along with over 100 users of the system across Departments, from Secretaries General to Assistant Secretaries and Principal Officers.

The data is a summary of newspaper headlines and 7 o'clock radio headlines of which an electronic copy is available to all users from 7.30 a.m. The main news bulletins are summarised throughout the day. It consists of detailed summaries of "Morning Ireland", lunchtime news programmes, early evening television news, 9 o'clock news and current affairs programme such as "PrimeTime" and "Questions and Answers". These are summarised and then faxed or, mainly nowadays, e-mailed to users. A two-weekly library of news programmes, including weekend programmes, is maintained. Copies of video and audio tapes are available to all Departments on request.

This eliminates what used to happen when the same news stories would be gathered by a half dozen Departments and the State paid outside operators to collect the information. The unit is not involved in any other function.

It does that well and as professionally as it can. It works 18 hours but the five people in the unit are not all there at the one time. From early morning to late evening, they update the information and present transcripts and data to all Departments and Minister of State sections. It carries out a good service that is not in any way politicised. It had clear protocols in the run-up to the general election when it could make no reference whatsoever to it.

I do not know the people from this section from Adam. I may have met the individual in my Department but I have not met the others. I do not go to the unit's office. It is not in any way politicised and that is why I react to these claims. These are civil servants doing their job. It is not the same as a political party press office. There is no, and there never was any, association or affiliation with any political party press office, be it Fianna Fáil, the Green Party or the Progressive Democrats. It is an entirely efficient and small operation that is saving the State money compared to what used to be an inefficient system. I have never even walked into the unit's office but if any Member wishes to see it at work, they are welcome. I have been answering questions on this for years but today Deputy Gilmore has phrased it differently. There is no political element to this unit whatsoever.

A Cheann Comhairle, just as the material——

No, there is very little time left. I call on Deputy O'Dowd.

As none of the material comes under the Official Secrets Act, it should be out in the open and everyone should have access to it.

It is Deputy O'Dowd's turn.

The material can be requested under freedom of information.

There are three ways we can find out about the Taoiseach's communications unit — Question Time, parliamentary questions and freedom of information requests.

Three times I asked the Taoiseach in a parliamentary question if the communications unit was aware of the stories as reported in the Irish Examiner and the Irish Independent on 13 June 2007. Three times in replies the Taoiseach refused to answer the question.

Three times the parliamentary question was forwarded to the Department of Transport. The reply sent to me asked if the communications unit of the Department of Transport ever noted the story, a question I never asked. I was informed that it never had and does not have such a unit. There is an issue of due process, knowledge and treating Members with respect. The Taoiseach spoke of treating civil servants with respect, with which I agree. However, Members are entitled to key and particular information.

The Taoiseach's reply also refused to answer the other part of my parliamentary question — to whom are these topics circulated. I want a full list of civil servants who receive this information. We spend €350,000 per annum paying the unit to do this job.

The Secretary General of the Department of Transport prepared a report which contains a comment from an Irish Examiner story on 13 June. Where did she get it? The communications unit did not see this story or summarise any story from the Irish Examiner for 13 June 2007. The Department of Transport informs me it has no communications unit. Where in the name of God did this come from?

The Taoiseach's communications policy is an absolute and disgraceful mess. Members cannot get an answer to a parliamentary question, even when it is tabled three times. It is not good enough to treat us with such absolute contempt. To whom are those documents circulated?

It goes to over 100 people, all Ministers, Ministers of State, Secretaries General, Assistant Secretaries in Departments and most of the Principal Officers. I cannot give the Deputy all their names.

Will the Taoiseach tell me their offices in the Departments?

They are in every Department.

Will the Taoiseach send them to me in written form?

The list of whom they are sent to?

Yes. I do not need the names, only their titles.

Yes. That is no problem.

Why did the Taoiseach not do so before now?

No problem.

Why did I have to come in here to ask for it again?

Deputy O'Dowd should allow the Taoiseach to reply. He has put his question.

Let us hear the facts.

Deputy O'Dowd said I did notanswer his question. I answered questions relevant to the Taoiseach. I replied to his letter, stating “I note——

I did not send a letter to the Taoiseach. I submitted a parliamentary question.

I replied to the effect that I noted that the Deputy had made reference on a number of occasions to the transfer of parliamentary questions which he had put down to me to the Minister for Transport. I stated that far from there being a reluctance on my part to engage with the issues concerned, I was merely following well-established precedent that questions are answered by the Minister of the Government having responsibility for the substantive question. I stated that I had in Leaders' Questions and on other occasions addressed the matters which were the subject of the Deputy's query. I continued that the position was that the Secretary General of my Department had inquired of the Secretary General of the Department of Transport about the likelihood of industrial action arising in Aer Lingus in the event that changed work practices were imposed on 1 August.

On the margins of the interdepartmental meeting about other matters held in my Department on 27 July, the Secretary General of the Department of Transport and the Assistant Secretary advised my Secretary General, who had raised the query in his role as Chairperson of the National Implementation Body, that it was not expected that such an industrial relations issue would arise. They went on to say that they had learned that it was the intention of the company to announce a new base in Belfast and this would have implications for Shannon and there would likely be industrial relations consequences.

I continued that they also advised that they were prepared to brief the Minister and would be in contact with the CEO of Aer Lingus on his return from leave the following Monday and the Minister would be meeting representatives of the company later that week. I further stated that I was informed by the Minister for Transport on 3 August that he had been told by company representatives that it was their intention to terminate the Shannon-Heathrow service and that this would be announced on 7 August.

I stated that with regard to the media monitoring unit in my Department, the position was that the unit disseminates a summary of radio and television headlines and of newspaper headlines on a regular basis to a wide range of personnel across Departments. Its role is purely one of dissemination of the news summaries and it does not have the role of bringing specific matters to my or any other Minister's attention. The unit did not bring any matter relating to Shannon or Belfast to attention.

In fairness to me, and with the greatest respect to Deputy O'Dowd, I did not answer questions which were not in order for me to answer, but I did not ignore him and I went to the trouble of writing personally to him. He should at least acknowledge that because it is not something I do regularly.

I sent the Taoiseach no letter. I sent three parliamentary questions for written reply. In each case the Taoiseach refused to reply.

On a point of order——

I want protection now, a Cheann Comhairle. I asked the Taoiseach——

On a point of order, that is not the question. I followed what is a well established precedent. I could not answer but rather than ignore the Deputy, I sent him a written reply which I would not normally do. However, I did so out of respect for the Deputy. I could not answer questions that were not sent to me, or that were not for my Department.

The question the Taoiseach is answering orally today is what his communications unit does. My parliamentary question was whether his communications unit noticed this story in the paper. He refused to answer that and I had to raise it three or four times. If the Taoiseach checks that in the Official Report, he will find out how many times I raised it here. I said we would make the Taoiseach accountable in the Dáil. That is the purpose of this question. That is why this trouble happened. The Taoiseach refused to answer my question. Worse than that, the question — did the communications unit there notice it? — was sent to a Department in a format which the Department could not possibly answer because it does not have a communications unit. This makes the parliamentary question process look foolish. That is why I am putting pressure on the Taoiseach today to be more transparent, open and accountable. That is our job and we will make sure the Taoiseach responds.

Deputies

Hear, hear.

Deputy O'Dowd is wrong and he knows it.

I had the good manners to answer his letter.

The Taoiseach did not answer.

I did answer.

I had to complain to the General Office and to the Ceann Comhairle's Office. I had to complain to everybody about it.

The Deputy is right that I did not answer a letter. He put down questions which I could not answer because there are rules about questions, which the Deputy knows. The issues he raised had already been dealt with in Leaders' Questions.

The Taoiseach just answered it here.

I had already dealt with it in Leaders' Questions.

If it was out of order, why is the Taoiseach answering it here?

Will the Taoiseach be as transparent with the tribunal as he is with us?

If that is the attitude Deputy O'Dowd takes the next time I try to be helpful to him, I know what I will do.

The Taoiseach is running off the pitch with the ball.

I remind Deputies that these questions relate to the costs of the communications unit and we have strayed far beyond that topic.

The Taoiseach's description of the communications unit is rather charming. It sounds like a downtown library of which we would all like to be members. It sounds as if this service is better than the RTE website. If it is as innocuous and value free, as politically unloaded and unbiased as the Taoiseach suggests, what would be wrong with making it available to all Members of the House?

In recent debates about who knew what and when in the health services, the Tánaiste asked last night for bipartisanship in respect of the development of cancer services, an idea with which most people would agree in principle. If real bipartisanship was to develop on this important issue, a critical factor would be to establish what the Minister knew about the ultrasound review carried out by the surgeon, Dr. Peter Naughton, to which several newspaper reports referred. The Taoiseach referred to this yesterday in a reply to the leader of the Labour Party when he said that Dr. Naughton had carried it out "to be sure, to be sure". If we all had the benefit of this wonderful clippings service, which could be distributed to everyone here at a nominal cost on top of the existing €400,000 cost, we might then be in a position to have some serious bipartisanship. Would the Taoiseach consider that suggestion? Why could information not go in the format the Taoiseach has described to every Member, or why not post it on the Taoiseach's website? Similar services are provided in other countries.

I have answered that question already. The communications unit is part of the Civil Service, not of the Commission of the House. As I said to Deputy Ó Caoláin, the State provides resources to all parties in the House to have politicised press offices. This unit is not politicised.