Tuesday, 6 October 2020

Questions (6, 7, 8, 9, 24, 149)

Peadar Tóibín


6. Deputy Peadar Tóibín asked the Taoiseach the amount spent by his Department on advertising online, broadcast and print advertising in each of the past five years. [25601/20]

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Alan Kelly


7. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach the amount his Department has spent on advertising for online, print and broadcasting to date in 2020; and the expenditure plans for the rest of 2020. [26659/20]

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Peadar Tóibín


8. Deputy Peadar Tóibín asked the Taoiseach the amount spent by his Department on advertising online, broadcast and print advertising in each of the past five years. [27115/20]

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Richard Boyd Barrett


9. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach the amount his Department has spent on advertising for online, print and broadcasting to date in 2020. [28894/20]

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Alan Kelly


24. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if his Department or agencies working on its behalf monitor and report on social media content relevant to Government policy. [26660/20]

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Catherine Murphy


149. Deputy Catherine Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he has engaged a third party company in each of the years, 2017 to 2019, and to date in 2020, to conduct online and or social media monitoring and or provide reports on social media coverage of his Department; if so, the cost of same; and if the name of the social media platforms being monitored will be provided. [28925/20]

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Oral answers (27 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 6 to 9, inclusive, 24 and 149 together.

The bulk of the spend in 2020 to date has been to deal with the Covid-19 emergency. Of the €11.4 million spent to date, €4.2 million was on advertising in publications and €5.8 million on broadcast advertising. Since March, my Department has co-ordinated communications for the whole-of-government response to the pandemic and this necessitated expenditure on a broad range of targeted public information campaigns.

The overall communications strategy for Covid-19 is based on a co-ordinated response that ensures maximum clarity for citizens, business and our wider community. This aligns both with WHO and European Centre for Disease Control, ECDC, advice, both of which emphasise the importance of ensuring the general public is aware of the seriousness of the Covid-19 outbreak and, further, that a high degree of population understanding, community engagement and acceptance of the measures put in place are key in preventing further spread.

It is also recommended that communications strategies should target different audiences and provide the rationale behind the measures, also outlining the necessity of putting a support system in place to provide essential services and supplies, for example, food and medication, and to monitor vulnerable individuals. It was also necessary to run campaigns at each phase of the roadmap as restrictions were lifted. The campaigns associated with the roadmap were aimed at giving people time to prepare so businesses could be ready to open. Campaigns were developed to ensure businesses were aware of the broad level of supports being made available to them by Government and to raise awareness of the Return to Work Safely Protocol and the July jobs stimulus package which was focused on restoring confidence and investment in the recovery.

More recently, public information campaigns have been run as restrictions were placed, and then subsequently lifted, in regions such as counties Kildare, Laois and Offaly and when counties Dublin and Donegal were placed under level 3 restrictions. In all such cases, it is essential that citizens, business owners and communities are informed of the decisions being made by Government, and campaigns are developed and implemented to make the public aware of these decisions.

In 2019, the spend included €12,000 on online advertising and €17,000 on video and radio production. My Department paid for public information campaigns on budgets 2019 and 2020, public consultation notices for draft language schemes and for the Vótáil 100 commemorations. There was also expenditure for advertisements relating to the recruitment of judges and the Irish Bank Resolution Corporation, IBRC, Commission, which is an independent statutory commission that contracted services to manage their public relations responsibilities.

In 2018. the €1.6 million spend was across online, print and broadcast advertising and production costs. This spend related to major cross-government public information campaigns that the Department funded centrally. These campaigns included Healthy Ireland, Global Ireland, Project Ireland 2040 and the self-employed benefits campaign, aimed at ensuring self-employed people are aware of the new and existing benefits available to them.

In 2017, the €40,000 spend related to cross-government public information campaigns on Healthy Ireland and self-employed benefits.

In 2016, the €10,000 spend related to the Home to Work information campaign.

A detailed annual breakdown of the advertising spend will accompany the reply to the questions. The Department does not engage third party media monitoring services. As part of the press office’s normal operation, both traditional print and social media are monitored for content of relevance to the work of the Department.

Under the previous Government, the decision was made that all online advertising would go through the Taoiseach's office. Is that still the case? What controls are in place to monitor Government spending? Perhaps the Taoiseach will furnish us with a report on and breakdown of Government spending on this. There is no doubt that there need to be controls. A sum of €2 million is large and I am concerned there might be another agenda at play. We are all familiar with the CervicalCheck scandal, which was a shocking situation that happened in this country, and with the amount of coverage it received internationally. Strangely, if one Googles the words "cervical check Ireland" one will note the first page of results omits any mention of the scandal whatsoever in any news reports. The first page is all Government advertisements. Now perhaps that indicates a very ambitious Government looking to advertise the services available but it is strange there are just enough ads on that page to push all news items to the next page. Again I figured that there was probably nothing wrong here, but it is worth considering that these ads were still being run during the pandemic when there was a Government decision that those screening services would stop. We had a full page of search-optimised adverts running right through the pandemic when women could not access those services at all. Why did the Government continue to spend money on advertising when those services were not available?

The Taoiseach ran out of time earlier but he might inform the House why he bottled the announcement of 21 December as a bank holiday. Last night, we were led to believe this might happen. If the Government were never even considering it, he can tell us that as well.

On the matter at hand, I have no issue with spending where it is appropriate but when the Taoiseach was leader of the Opposition he vigorously opposed the strategic communications unit. What is he doing differently? How much less is he going to spend than his predecessor pro rata? To date, in the 100 or days since his appointment what is that figure as a proportion? He was quite critical and we have to continue his critical analysis now he is Taoiseach to see what the money is being spent on and whether there is oversight of it because some concerns are emanating about it. I fully believe that money will have to be spent on informing the public about the changes that are taking place across the board as a result of Covid.

We need to see that it is being spent in the right manner. I ask one thing of the Taoiseach, which I know he did not get to answer earlier. We have to communicate to the public and get across the difference between bloody visors and proper masks. There is a huge difference. I have stressed it for a week to the Taoiseach and the Minister for Health. We really need to deal with this and we need to practice what we preach in here.

If the Taoiseach wants an effective campaign of public information in the situation we are in, he should not have a control freak attitude, which is fearful of public debate. In fact, he should use the resources he is making available for online activity or announcements to actually facilitate debate and provide more detailed information than is currently available. There is a tendency for the Government to insult the intelligence of the public and not to believe in their wisdom. In the end, these debates are forced out. Last week, I organised a briefing about zero Covid at which it was argued that we a need a debate about strategy. A week later, we are having a debate about strategy. It has been forced on the Government but there is massive confusion. Advice from NPHET says one thing, the Taoiseach dismisses it and the Tánaiste absolutely rubbishes NPHET but where is the information and the evidence? We need to put in the public domain the information and the data that led the Taoiseach to dismiss NPHET and put out NPHET's data, and let people adjudicate on the actual information and not be afraid to have a debate.

I reiterate the point just made. We now have access to the letter written from NPHET to the Minister for Health, which found its way into the public domain; I do not know how. Perhaps the Taoiseach knows but I do not know how it found its way into the public domain on Sunday evening. It was private correspondence. In any event, that is all we have. The production and publication of data are essential because data are the building blocks of the logic for the direction of travel in very important decisions that impact on people's lives. The right approach is to have this type of transparency and I ask the Taoiseach to publish the information. He received the letter from NPHET but he had a much deeper conversation with the Chief Medical Officer and others on modelling and all of the metrics. They are very skilled professional people. Let us have access to the information also.

The data are being published. The data on ICUs are being published.

A lot of the considerations are not.

I was talking about Philip Nolan's-----

Information on the case numbers is published on an ongoing basis. The NPHET letters are being published.

At five weeks behind.

I am talking about the letters-----

Sorry, the minutes are five weeks behind.

-----that were the key issue in terms of Thursday's advice and Sunday's advice. They have been published.

The minutes are always six weeks behind.

Everybody should wear masks as often as they possibly can.

Give out the guidance on visors please.

The guidance is out there-----

-----on masks.

I ask the Taoiseach to answer the question and stop the interaction please.

There was no bank holiday date in my mind yesterday. I do not know where that came from. There was a lot more on my mind yesterday than the awarding of a bank holiday. I do not know where that came from.

It is an interesting one.

It was not in my head.

It was in someone's head.

There was a more fundamental issue about level 3 and level 5. Those were the issues yesterday.

To respond to Deputy Tóibín's points, I am perplexed by the suggestion. There is no media monitoring of Government criticism by anybody in the Government Information Service or the Department of the Taoiseach. There is no monitoring of any criticism by political parties. That does not happen. No public servant or anybody else is doing this type of work. The idea that advertisements are being put out to stop the bad news sounds extraordinary and bizarre to me and I certainly do not believe that is the case.

There were advertisements during the period-----

There could have been a contract that was entered into earlier. I do not know. I will check it out for the Deputy and get an answer on it. Perhaps contracts were entered into in advance for a set period. I do not know with regard to the specific issue raised by the Deputy on CervicalCheck advertisements.

The bulk of communications has been on Covid-19 with regard to the various roadmaps, which predate the new Government, and letting people know what was reopening and when, and the issues pertaining to that. Likewise, in terms of the various levels we went to in Kildare and so on, various campaigns have to kick in on all media platforms in terms of what is allowed and not allowed, what the new regime and new restrictions mean, the business supports required in order that businesses can apply for restart grants, how to apply for rates relief, how to apply for various schemes that can support businesses and so on, as well as information for the public. It has been quite comprehensive. We need to continue with these information campaigns at all levels to make sure the members of the public are aware of their entitlements and what the restrictions themselves mean. We will be giving a detailed breakdown on the spend and we will circulate it to Deputies.

There is no control freak approach on issues. It seems that the Business Committee meets on Thursday and, as I said earlier, every Tuesday there is a call for something to be added. This seems to be the stock in trade and the norm on how it operates. No matter what the Business Committee agrees on a Thursday, I can guarantee that on the following Tuesday when we open, there will be a demand for something else. I have no issue with having debates on aspects of this but the Oireachtas participated in a debate on the plan, which allowed for a graduated response.

We did not dismiss NPHET's recommendation. The Government published a plan three weeks ago. It has to take wider societal issues into consideration. It has to take the economy and employment into consideration. Of course, public health is uppermost. The whole idea of the plan is that people could anticipate or expect that if we are at level 2 and things are getting worse, we might go to level 3, then to level 4 and then level 5. Sometimes the virus may not respect that but everybody was taken aback on Sunday when there was a suggestion that most counties would move from level 2 to level 5 in one fell swoop. It would have had enormous implications for many enterprises and businesses and many people working. It would have been the lower paid and young people who would have suffered most if we had moved to level 5 in that way.

At this stage, the Government has taken a view that we did not think it would be proportionate or the right course of action to go to level 5. I have also said, and I said it yesterday to the Irish people, that we do need collectively and individually to work together to stabilise the numbers and get the spread of the virus under control.