Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Questions (4)

Brendan Howlin


4. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach the number of politically appointed staff in his Department. [2740/19]

View answer

Oral answers (73 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

There are currently 21 politically appointed staff employed by the Department of the Taoiseach. This includes those working directly for me in my office, those working in the Government information service, staff working for the Independent Alliance and Independent Ministers, staff in the office of the Government Chief Whip and staff in the office of the Leader of the Seanad. The ten staff working directly with me are my chief of staff, head of policy and programme implementation, five special advisers and three personal assistants. In addition, the Government press secretary acts as a spokesperson for me and for the Government and is assisted by an assistant Government press secretary in co-ordinating the media relations of all Departments. The deputy Government press secretary is also based in my Department and co-ordinates communications for all the Independents in government. Also employed by my Department are the chief strategist for the Independent Alliance and the political co-ordinator for the Independent Ministers in government.

In the office of the Government Chief Whip, which is also based in my Department, there are two special advisers and two civilian drivers. My Department also employs two civilian drivers who are based in the office of the Leader of the Seanad in the Houses of the Oireachtas. Special advisers working with the Ministers of State, Deputies McEntee and Kehoe, are employed by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Department of Defence, respectively.

To be clear, the figure of 21 is excluding the drivers and including everybody else the Taoiseach has listed. Has the Taoiseach given instructions to Ministers to hire journalists as political advisers? There have been some raised eyebrows at the number of journalists who have now been hired to work for Ministers. Is it something the Taoiseach recommends? He has eight special advisers including the Government press secretary, plus a further two for the Independent Alliance and the deputy press secretary. Is that right? A large number of junior Ministers now also have special advisers. I recall in the previous Government, of which the Taoiseach and I were both members, that only two junior Ministers who did not attend Cabinet had special advisers. One was the Minister of State with responsibility for European Affairs and the other was a Minister of State in the Department of Health. Now I understand the figure is up to five, with the latest ones to have special advisers being the Ministers of State, Deputies Halligan, McEntee, Jim Daly, Moran, and D'Arcy. Can the Taoiseach confirm if Deputies Canney and Doyle have been granted special advisers? What are the criteria to determine who gets a special adviser in the junior ministerial ranks? What is the total cost of the political staff in the Department of the Taoiseach? Based on a rough calculation it is at least €1.5 million. Am I in the ballpark with that? Can the Taoiseach confirm the figure?

As our most instinctively political Taoiseach for many years, the Taoiseach obviously puts significant store on his appointed advisers. He makes sure that he always has at hand a political attack for when he is under pressure. Equally, his political advisers are expected to be very active in looking for marketing opportunities. What is incredibly surprising is that in spite of the sheer number of times he talked about the children's hospital in the first half of last year - he talked quite a lot about it, including using public money on social media promotion of his good self - for some reason it basically disappeared from his speeches as the year went on. In his Árd-Fheis speech on 17 November he did not mention it or the health capital programme at all. At the start of last August, the Government reappointed the entire board of the National Children's Hospital. A few weeks later, information emerged about the significant scale of overspend and apparently this was accepted by the Government without any review and without calling for any heads to roll.

It was only when the overspend became public that the Taoiseach and the Minister for Health, Deputy Harris, began to say they were very concerned and that it was wrong. They then made calls for the PricewaterhouseCoopers review. One has to ask, given the extent of the political operation at the heart of government, whether the Taoiseach is surprised that the issue did not surface earlier. Would it have been identified if the Cabinet committees had met more regularly? Should the Cabinet committees on infrastructure and health have been receiving regular updates on the costings of such a major component of the national development plan as the national children's hospital? Was it buried because the Taoiseach was planning a general election? I listened to the answers he gave to Deputy Howlin. He said the Minister for Health had become aware of the overspends in August. I assume the Taoiseach is saying the Minister did the right thing by waiting until-----

-----November to tell him and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. The Minister, Deputy Harris, did not ask further questions between then and November. That does not add up and it is not credible, particularly given the major issue of the overspend in the health service of some €800 million. While we were discussing it, the Minister and many others were aware of a massive overspend on a capital investment infrastructure site but did not mention it to anybody. It is only because the news got out that the Government is racing to try to patch up and cover its tracks by announcing the PwC review. The chairman of the hospital board has also resigned. There was none of this between August and November. The Government must give a meaningful and credible explanation as to why the Minister did not alert his Cabinet colleagues to the overspend of which he was aware in August. We are talking about a massive overspend. Furthermore, in September Deputy Cowen was told that the price might rise to €1 billion. I heard the Minister speak about this on the Sean O'Rourke radio show yesterday and was not happy with his response. He seemed to suggest commercial sensitivities took precedence over telling the truth to the House.

The Minister is the not the first to cite commercial sensitivities to keep full information from public view, as we are all aware. Will the Taoiseach confirm or deny reports that the Cabinet has decided to put back the referendum on the extension of presidential voting rights from May until October? Will he give us the rationale for this? He might cite whether his political advisers advised him on the issue and the basis of that advice.

I note that Deputy Micheál Martin has described me as one of the most instinctive politicians. I am not sure he meant it as a compliment, but as instinct is very valuable in politics, I choose to take it as a compliment.

I knew that the Taoiseach would take it as a compliment, which is why I said it. That is the point.

He took it as a compliment instinctively.

The 21 political staff mentioned include drivers. I am not included as I have garda drivers, but the Chief Whip and the Leader of the Seanad have drivers. The figure of 21 is inclusive of drivers. It also includes staff in my office in the Department of the Taoiseach and my constituency staffs. Also included are staff assigned to the Independent Alliance, Independent Ministers and the Minister of State, Deputy Kyne, who, as Chief Whip, is a Minister of State in my Department. While all of the people concerned are on the payroll of the Department of the Taoiseach, they certainly do not all vote for me. I am sorry; I mean that they do not all work for me. I do not know who they vote for, but they certainly do not all work for me.

We can safely guess who they vote for.

They work for the Chief Whip and the Independents. Of course, those who work for the Independents may well vote for Independents.

In terms of the cost, I have fewer political staff than all three of my predecessors-----

What is the cost?

-----and the total payroll cost is also lower. My forebear had 23 staff and iar-Thaoiseach Cowen had more again.

What is the cost?

I do not have the exact figure, but it is the lowest of-----

How does the Taoiseach know it is lower if he does not know what it is?

I know it for a fact because I make sure it is lower.

Perhaps there are optical reasons for it.

There are also financial and factual reasons. It is good that I have fewer advisers-----

What is the cost?

-----and that their salaries cost less than for any of the last three Taoisigh going back to the 1990s.

Tell us what the cost is.

The Taoiseach cannot tell us what it is.

It is uniquely unusual that when this issue arises in the Chamber, I am criticised for not having more advisers-----

What is the cost?

I am asked why I do not have an adviser for X or an adviser for Y. It must be the first time in decades when a Taoiseach has been criticised for not having enough advisers. I do not have as many as the previous three Taoisigh.

Nobody is criticising the Taoiseach.

Who is criticising him?

What is the cost of the advisers?

I will provide the figure for the Deputy, but I do not have it in front of me.

The Taoiseach says he knows that it is lower than the figure for the previous Taoiseach.

Of course, it is; we took €5 million out of the communications unit, which would have put the Taoiseach far ahead of his predecessor. No other predecessor had a €5 million communications unit. Get off the stage.

To answer the other questions I was asked, I have not given any instruction to Ministers on who to hire. On occasion, they will ask my opinion if they are going to hire someone. They do not always do it, but they usually do. It is true that a number of journalists have been hired by Ministers as their advisers. One of my advisers is a former journalist. It is particularly useful, if one is going to be a press adviser or work in a press role, that one have experience as a journalist. I am surprised at the number of press officers and press advisers who have never actually worked as a journalist.

I believe it is useful experience for a person-----

It is, absolutely.

-----who is going to be working in the media-----

-----to know how the media work and operate. There are also many journalists who know a lot about topics.

Did the Taoiseach say many journalists know about topics?

Quite a large number of journalists have been following a particular issue or policy matter for many years, indeed decades. While they may have not worked for an NGO or might not have a particular academic qualification in that area, they do actually know a lot about what they write about-----

Many of them are Fine Gael supporters it seems.

-----precisely because they have been following a particular matter for ten or 20 years.

It is an astonishing trend among the commentariat.

The Taoiseach should hire a nurse as an adviser.

I am fascinated by the quality of the advisers among Deputy Micheál Martin's staff who have trawled through all of my speeches to find out how many times I have mentioned the children's hospital.

Will the Taoiseach answer my question on the referendum?

I am not sure trawling through my speeches is the best use of taxpayers' money. I had not noticed that was the case, but I will make sure to include the national children's hospital in more of my speeches in the future. It is a project the Government will deliver. It has been said many times that it will cost €1.7 billion. One only gets to that figure by including the €30 million or €40 million a Fianna Fáil Government spent on the Mater hospital site on a hospital that was never built. This project will be delivered and will be there for 100 or 200 years.


I am answering the questions as they were asked, but the number of interruptions makes it harder to answer them.

I was also asked-----

I asked about the Minister, Deputy Harris.

I am getting to it. As I said, I believe he did the right thing back in August in seeking full information. He did not have a figure in August.

What was he told in August?

I do not know what he was told, but he was-----

The Taoiseach should know and should tell us. That is the basis of his answer. We have been getting this now for-----


The clock is running down.

I am happy to answer that question again

I ask the Taoiseach to answer the questions he was asked.

As I was not party to the conversation, I do not know exactly what he was told-----

Has the Taoiseach asked him since?

-----but what he has told me is that he was told that there was a concern about escalating costs at the national children's hospital and that he wanted due diligence to be carried out. There was no figure and he asked for figures to be provided. It was part of commercial negotiations with the contractor. Due diligence was carried out in order to bring down costs; to negotiate with the contractor to find out what the costs were for-----

The costs did not come down; they went up.

-----to investigate whether there were other options, including retendering-----

The expenditure was profiled in September.

-----and to see if specifications could have been taken out. There was no definitive figure until November.

The Taoiseach has said the figures came down, but they actually went up.

I explained it earlier. Deputy Micheál Martin referred to it "getting out". It got out in December because we disclosed it. The Government made a decision-----

That occurred on the day the Dáil adjourned.

-----to allocate €1.4 billion to cover the construction costs of the children's hospital. There was no secret about it; we disclosed it publicly in December, before Christmas.

On the referendum on voting rights for citizens abroad, we had a-----

And citizens in the North.

There was a memo before the Cabinet on the issue today. We agreed that we would proceed with a referendum to extend voting rights to all citizens, no matter where they lived, be it Northern Ireland or other parts of the world.

It will not only be passport holders. It will be all citizens because some citizens do not have a passport or cannot afford one or perhaps cannot travel. We have taken the decision that this referendum could be contentious. It will involve a good deal of planning, it needs a good campaign and we want to win it. Given the uncertainty around Brexit at the moment and the fact that we have local and European elections and other referenda on 24 May, we want to have it in October instead to give us more time to prepare the ground and inform people. This will give us a better chance, I believe, of getting it passed. Of course the next presidential election is not scheduled until 2025, so we have a good deal of time yet to get it done. The commitment is to do it in the last week of October.