Wednesday, 6 November 2019

Questions (3)

Brendan Howlin

Question:

3. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach the number of staff employed in the Government Information Service, GIS; and the communications budget for 2019. [43185/19]

View answer

Oral answers (11 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

There are 15 staff currently employed in the GIS.

Responsibilities of the service include the running of the Government press office and the delivery of Government-wide communications reform.

In line with the recommendations from a review conducted in 2018, the Department has reverted to the GIS model, with a smaller budget, fewer staff and a more limited role.

In further alignment with the review, changes have been made across Departments, which preserve valuable and necessary reforms to ensure value for money, professionalisation and modernisation of Government communications in general.

The communications budget for GIS is sourced from the administration budget of my Department. The yearly outlay will depend on factors such as whether there are any significant inward State visits or whether events, for example, the outcome of the Brexit negotiations, require additional communication expenditure. Public information campaigns are now largely funded by the relevant line Department and are not funded centrally by my Department.

I noted the Taoiseach's Twitter post a few days ago questioning whether Fianna Fáil has any policies and where have they all gone. The video the Taoiseach issued implied that Fianna Fáil policies are now few and far between. It reminded me of the type of American-style attack advertisements that are now too frequent. It raises a serious point - the influence of social media and how it is used by politicians in the State, and particularly the rising influence of the far right and external forces in elections. We need strong and enforceable legislation on ongoing political advertising of any sort to ensure our democracy is neither for sale or open to external interference. We have long talked about the requirement to put a statutory electoral commission in place. When will we have that? Many of us thought that we would be in a general election here by now.

It is certainly likely that there will be a general election within the next six months. Everybody in this House would want a level playing field for that election. I have two direct questions for the Taoiseach. When does he envisage that the electoral commission will be established on a statutory basis in order to allow it to be the determiner of fair play in future elections? How will he ensure that external influences will not impact on our electoral system in the forthcoming election?

I concur with Deputy Howlin. The failure to progress the electoral commission, which was agreed as part of our Dáil reform programme at the commencement of this Oireachtas, and had been agreed in a previous Government programme dating back to 2012 - and even before that - is extraordinary because it is key to ensuring that we safeguard our democracy, political and election campaigns and referenda. We need a comprehensive statutory based electoral commission to make sure our elections are run properly, effectively and professionally. That goes from registers to the social media impact.

It is important that the role of the Civil Service is never politicised. That has been one of the great strengths of this country since the foundation of the State. The introduction of the strategic communications unit tried to change that and, thankfully, through pressure from the Oireachtas, the position was reversed.

Has the financial allocation to the GIS changed during the past three years? Is the Taoiseach satisfied that the work of the GIS is impartial? Can he outline the reporting relationships within the GIS? Is there a close working relationship between his political staff and staff of the service? Have any external public relations firms advised the GIS on any aspect of its work? Is it involved in promoting Government campaigns such as the Be Winter Ready campaign? Do the same staff manage the MerrionStreet.ie website? The Taoiseach might answer those specific questions as it is important we be vigilant in this regard.

I certainly support Deputy Howlin in the context of what he said about the impact of social media, political advertising on social media platforms and the external forces impacting on elections. It is extraordinary that a report on Russian involvement in the Brexit referendum is being withheld. That shows what is going on out there. I am not sure if there is any clear articulation, clarification or a substantive report into what is happening in Ireland in terms of utilisation of social media by external bodies that may want to influence the direction of policy within the country.

The Taoiseach said that the role of the GIS is to provide a 24-7 service to the media on topics of public interest. He emphasised that this requirement stems from a need to ensure transparency and clarity for all citizens around what the Government is doing. He also stated that the central objective of these channels of communication is to report the work of Government objectively. What mechanisms are in place to ensure that transparency and objectivity is achieved? In practical terms, how does the GIS measure those objectives? What reporting mechanisms are in place for senior civil servants? Does it include a periodic review process? An issue that is becoming more prevalent is that of fact checkers, who have become very popular in the communications sphere. Is this a process the GIS includes in its work? If not, is it something the Taoiseach would consider would be included? Has the Government ever employed an independent organisation to review the work and the organisational goals of the GIS?

An extraordinary number of women have stood down from running for elective office in the UK because of what has happened to them in terms of trolling and threats via social media. The Taoiseach has a lot of expertise and an interest in social media. He also has the GIS in his Department, which is uniquely well placed to have an oversight of what is happening in terms of people being threatened. We had the appalling attack recently on Deputy Martin Kenny, whose car was set alight in a very dangerous way outside his house, but I understand he got a tremendous amount of abuse on social media also.

We want everybody to be able to participate in elections. The trolls will not put me off running for election. I am sure they will not put off Deputy Lisa Chambers. However, we have just witnessed unprecedented numbers of women in a very robust UK Parliament opting not to run for election again. I acknowledge that it is not just women who are affected. Could the Taoiseach have conversations with parties or other Members to see if we can limit this particular evil?

I call the Taoiseach to respond. I will try to ensure that there will be 15 minutes for the next question.

All parties in this House have shown themselves to be very capable and very adept at attacking their political opponents in any way they can on occasion. There is an advertisement up at the moment from a political party which states that I am against democracy and which compares me to Kim Jong-il. I do not get precious about these things so I hope other people do not either. If one is willing to give it out, one should also be willing to take it.

Which party put that up?

Solidarity-People Before Profit.

Legislation relating to the electoral commission is being worked on at present. We expect to have the heads of a Bill next year. We are working on other legislation that will come in before that. That was approved in principle by Government just this week. That legislation will require transparency when it comes to political advertising online. As we all know now, if somebody puts up a poster on a public lamp post to advertise themselves or a public meeting, it is necessary to state on that who printed it and who is responsible for it. That is not the case online at the moment so we want to pass legislation that requires any online political advertising to be identifiable as to who commissioned it and where it came from. That will be an important step forward and one that will be widely welcomed in the House.

I am satisfied that the GIS is impartial. In my experience, civil servants are very careful about that and not crossing the line between working for the Department and the Government into the political sphere where they are working for a politician or a party. I am very respectful of that division. It is the case that all my staff have close working relationships with the civil servants in the Department. That is as it should be.

In terms of the Be Winter Ready campaign, I honestly do not know if the GIS is involved in that. I believe it is run by the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, but I may be incorrect. I tend not to get directly involved in any of these communication issues for reasons I think people will understand.

I reiterate that neither the GIS nor the Department of the Taoiseach have any role in respect of my social media accounts. MerrionStreet.ie is a Government account but the ones under my name are mine. Civil servants and the GIS do not have any role in that at all.

I share Deputy Burton's concerns about the number of women and men, but particularly women, who are leaving politics in the UK because they believe the climate has become toxic. This is not just a social media issue, it is much more than that. Much of it is related to Brexit but perhaps not just that. I do not believe we have had that experience yet in this country but it is increasingly difficult to get people to run for election-----

Yes, definitely.

-----and agree to be candidates. People who might consider being candidates look at the social media of politicians of all parties, read the comments people make about them and ask themselves if they really want to let themselves in for that. That is a problem we face. How we deal with that while still protecting freedom of expression and freedom of speech, which I am committed to, is a real challenge.

Total expenditure on social media and digital advertising by my Department in 2019 was €1,355.46. That was the public information campaign in March around the budget measures that took effect then.