Tuesday, 17 September 2019

Questions (7, 8)

Joan Burton


7. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if the policy of his Department with respect to social media has been updated. [28220/19]

View answer

Brendan Howlin


8. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the social media policy of his Department. [29751/19]

View answer

Oral answers (29 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 7 and 8 together.

It is important to communicate across a variety of platforms, including social media, to ensure transparency and clarity for all citizens. The Government information service is now required to provide 24-7 services to media organisations on all topics of public interest and with short response times. The social media channels for my Department are Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.

The central objective of these channels is to report objectively on the work of Government and, over time, to provide a valuable archive of information. The social media activity in the Department is governed by strict operating principles. The main operating principles governing the use of these social channels are that the content consists of news stories and press releases, speeches from me and from Ministers, photos and videos from Government events and my engagements, the live tweeting of Government events and other content as deemed appropriate.

The use of social media platforms is not intended as a means of contacting me or the Department directly, or for the submission of press queries. Those activities are handled by other means. Following or retweeting another account does not imply an endorsement of any kind.

All staff in my Department who update social media channels are bound by the Civil Service code and standards of behaviour.

I firstly thank the Taoiseach for his comments on the previous issue, particularly the recognition that, for older people who have a retirement pension, the free travel allowance through the personal services card provides total privacy for people getting on and off buses, trains and other forms of transport on which the card can be used. People should not scare older people into feeling they may lose that because it is a valuable improvement to public services.

I am getting tired and weary of the constant advertisements from Government stating that a particular thing is an initiative of the Government of Ireland. What is an initiative of the Government of Ireland? There was a time when we had a health service that could tell us the number of people it was going to treat and so on. We could feel that things were running along but we are now plagued with these rather soporific advertisements.

There have been ugly scenes this week, unfortunately, in the lovely town of Oughterard. A Deputy of this House made comments about people of African origin who are in this country which have been deeply upsetting to many of our citizens and the Taoiseach has rightly called that out. Why is the Government doing so much social media communication but no communication with people in Oughterard about a potentially significant development in the town and one which does require communication? My fear about the social media profile of this Government is that it amounts to casual social media and advertising but no real communication, which means reaching out to people and communities and explaining what exactly is the thinking behind what the Government is doing, or not doing, and having discussions with people over proposed changes that will significantly affect people's lives.

The BusConnects proposal is another example. Thousands of trees have been felled in Dublin's most tree-lined avenues. I attended a communication event last week with representatives from BusConnects. There was a map sitting above the heads of the three men who were representing BusConnects which was hard to work out. Those men were the team which was meant to advise and communicate with the public in the Taoiseach's constituency and mine and it made me wonder why this Government is so sharp in social media and advertising initiatives while it totally fails in real communication with citizens on things that affect their lives.

Social media policy is obviously an important part of everyday life now. There is a consensus in this House and across the country that the business of policing harmful content on social media cannot be left up to the platform providers and that the days of self-regulation by social media are well past. The consensus in this House is that we urgently need an online safety commissioner to act in the public interest and it is essential that such a commissioner would be adequately resourced. Currently, at least one third of the EU's data are being managed in Ireland and yet the Data Protection Commissioner has only €15 million of funding. We must have the confidence of all of Europe that Ireland can do this job effectively on behalf of all Europe's citizens.

Can the Taoiseach now provide an update on the progress of the two proposed pieces of legislation, one from the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation on the online safety commissioner and one from the Department of Justice and Equality, namely, the legislation introduced by the Labour Party and accepted by the Government earlier this year? We thought the element which does not include the Data Protection Commissioner might be enacted. When will those two pieces of legislation be advanced and brought before the House?

I will address the ramping up of information campaigns relating to Brexit. People throughout the country are asking why all this activity was not in place at the start of this year. We have heard commentary that the advertising spend for this campaign appears to be heavily focused on telling the public that Ireland will be ready, rather than concentrating on the concrete targeting of the businesses which need the most help. Can the Taoiseach outline the basis upon which spending in this campaign was allocated between different approaches? Was any of the advertising reviewed with target groups to check that it was meeting their needs rather than promoting a generic Government message?

We know that in March we were not ready. As it subsequently turned out, no deal could have happened at the end of March. We need full openness and honesty about the impact of Brexit generally. People should not be attacked just for asking questions about the state of preparedness for Brexit or calling for details of Border arrangements if a no-deal outcome were to emerge. I am hopeful that a no-deal outcome will not happen and that minds will concentrate because I believe a no-deal outcome is very bad news all around for the United Kingdom, the island of Ireland and Europe. It would be a collective failure all around if that were to materialise because many livelihoods would be affected.

Could the Taoiseach answer the question as to the reason we still do not have an online safety commissioner? It has been two years. All parties in the House have supported that in various motions, including our party.

We have just four minutes remaining and we need to hear the Taoiseach's answer.

Briefly, two very important matters of communication now pertain to Brexit. The first is to make it absolutely clear to the British Government that the backstop is the bottom line that is not negotiable. Second, contrary to the position adopted by Deputy Micheál Martin, it ought to be remembered that Fianna Fáil in the early days of Brexit passed a proposal at its Ard-Fheis that we adopt Canada-style customs and Border regulations-----

Stop being silly.

-----which was an incredibly daft and dangerous proposition. The Deputy persists in advising the Taoiseach to think out loud about customs and checks and where they should be located. Can I offer the Taoiseach absolutely contrary advice? I believe that is dangerous.

We have agreed on a collective position that there can be no hardening of the Border and no damage to the Good Friday Agreement. I advise the Taoiseach that as the clock ticks down and the pressure mounts, and as Boris Johnson and the British system are desperately fishing for an out, this is not the moment for the Head of Government in this State to think out loud or to make any proposition around customs and checks. There can be no customs or checks. It is academic where they would be located. There can be no hardening of the Border and no damage to the Good Friday Agreement. That is the strong negotiating position for this State and it is one we should collectively persist with. We should not approach this in a party political manner. The stakes are too high.

The Deputy has just done so.

Counselling the Taoiseach in the way Deputy Martin has done is enormously dangerous. The message to Boris Johnson, the Tories and the British state needs to be much more clear-cut.

Let us hear the Taoiseach's response.

On a point of order, the absence of an Assembly and the Executive is far more damaging to the Good Friday Agreement.

That happened long before Brexit. Deputy McDonald has some neck.

Thank you, Deputy.

Deputy Martin was calling for it to be pulled down long before the scandal that brought it down.

Sinn Féin pulled it down.

He should go away and stop being silly.

That is a silly response.

Briefly, regarding Oughterard, I agree with Deputy Burton that there should be communication between the Department of Justice and Equality and residents-----

-----on what plans, if any, there are to accommodate asylum seekers there.

Would the Taoiseach ever tell the Department that?

There are good examples of where there have been good communications. Wicklow town is one example and Lisdoonvarna is another where communities were engaged with. Some fears were allayed and some scare stories corrected. I am told that has not happened yet in Oughterard because any plans or proposals to accommodate asylum seekers in that particular town are only at the initial stages and are not developed to the point where the Department is in a position to consult residents. If the plans get to that point, I am sure it will happen. Wicklow town and Lisdoonvarna are very good examples of where there may have been an initial reaction which was negative but now people have come around and welcomed people from other countries into their towns.

The information campaigns around BusConnects have been run by the National Transport Authority, NTA, and Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII. I know from my constituency work that there has been a deficit in public communications in that regard but I believe both those transport bodies will take on the concerns of the general public and will make changes to BusConnects, in the same way that they made changes to the metro alignment.

It is Government policy to establish an Internet safety commissioner. The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, is working on the legislation. If I recall correctly, in the legislative programme we approved at Cabinet this morning the Bill is down for publication in this parliamentary session and before Christmas.

In terms of the Labour Party legislation - Deputy Howlin's legislation - the Government very much supports it and we will co-operate with the Labour Party in getting it through. I am not sure exactly what stage it is at.

It is on Committee Stage.

I know the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan, is dealing with it. I will check with him to see if we can get it done in this session also.

On the public information campaign on Brexit, that is run through the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Until now, it has been largely business-focused. People have heard the business-focused advertisements on radio and online. In addition, the extra Revenue staff have been ringing businesses individually. More than 90% of businesses, by volume of trade, now have EORI numbers. They have been written to and there have been follow-up phone calls. Just the other day, the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, through the Companies Registration Office, CRO, contacted 220,000 businesses. We now need to shift the focus to more citizen-focused information. What do I do with my driving licence and my insurance? What happens when I arrive at an airport? Do I go through the blue, green or red channel? Those are the practical issues people need to know about. That will be ramped up in the next few weeks.

I believe March is different from October. I do not believe one can ever be 100% ready for Brexit but we were as ready as we could be back in March and we are as ready as we can be now. The difference in March was that Prime Minister May always expressed her intention to seek an extension if we could not get a deal ratified. Indeed, the Cooper-Boles law passed by parliament required the Prime Minister to seek an extension. Prime Minister Johnson's approach is very different. He is saying that he will not seek an extension and that the UK will leave with or without a deal. He is also suggesting that in some way the British Government may be able to get around the Benn legislation passed in recent weeks. I think the position is different now.