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Departmental Staff

Dáil Éireann Debate, Tuesday - 30 November 2021

Tuesday, 30 November 2021

Questions (1)

Alan Kelly


1. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the number of special advisers and political staffing appointments in his Department. [54768/21]

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Oral answers (11 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

The requirement for specialist policy input and advice is a matter for each individual Minister to consider having regard to the area of responsibility and the support in place in the relevant Departments in line with the terms of the Public Service Management Act 1997.

As outlined in the programme for Government, a number of reforms have been implemented to ensure openness and co-operation within Government. These include the establishment of an office of the Tánaiste and an office of the leader of the Green Party within the Department of the Taoiseach, located in Government buildings. There are 16 special advisers employed within the Department of the Taoiseach, covering the Tánaiste and the leader of the Green Party, including the Government Chief Whip.

They work with the various office holders in the Department. I have previously set out details of these appointments to the House. The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has also published the list of special advisers approved by Government, including those assigned to work in my Department, which is available on the website and which is updated periodically.

Other politically-appointed staff in my Department include a Government press secretary and two deputy Government press secretaries, one each assigned to the Office of the Tánaiste and the office of the leader of the Green Party; a personal assistant to both the Taoiseach and Tánaiste; and two civilian drivers for the Government Chief Whip.

I thank the Taoiseach. It is an unprecedented number of advisers. I would say it is the highest in the history of the State. When the Taoiseach was in opposition he asked an awful lot of questions, as did his colleagues, as to why they were all required. The Taoiseach has gone and beaten the record. It includes 16 names, as the Taoiseach has outlined, I do not believe that this includes some other drivers. On top of that there are other offices. If you add in those who are working in secretarial roles, assistant roles, driver roles, and the Government press secretaries and advisers to the Attorney General etc., how many are there in total? This is so we can clearly see what the overall cost is. I have a cost of €3 million per year. Is that accurate? Is there a system of reviewing how this is performing? Surely the Taoiseach has some system of managing it and looking at the performance. It is a significant cost. Perhaps the Taoiseach would outline to us what this is.

Will the Taoiseach confirm that every aspect of all of the communications from all of these advisers, including WhatsApp, emails, messages, voice notes, and other electronic messages, is available under freedom of information and under parliamentary questions?

I was very intrigued by the announcement made by the Taoiseach at the end of September on the comprehensive review of Irish planning legislation, which is to be led by the Attorney General. In principle, the review of planning legislation is something I welcome. I did a review of An Bord Pleanála a number of years ago. It is intriguing that this proposed review is to be led by the Attorney General. Is this in accordance with the Cabinet handbook? What is the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, whose remit covers planning, responsible for? Why is he not leading this review ? Why is the Attorney General leading it? What resources are being put into the review and how many people are involved? What are the costs of it? Have additional resources been provided? There are three special advisers in the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, the Department that covers planning. Are they involved in this review or are their roles being duplicated? Why was the Minister with responsibility for planning not in charge of this? Why is the Attorney General in charge of this? The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage decides what legislation he or she wants. The Minister is in charge of policy, not the Attorney General. The Attorney General is not the policy chief. He advises the Government legally, so why is he leading on this? Is this a dangerous precedent? Has the Taoiseach seen this before? I admit that Attorneys General always advise legally, but they do not lead on policy. How is it that the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, who is responsible for planning, is being absolutely bypassed here and a role is being set up for the Attorney General to do this when in reality it should be a member of the Government who has responsibility for it?

Does the Taoiseach have a special adviser on disability matters, or have any of the Taoiseach's special advisers ever suggested he heeds the call of disability organisations and advocate groups for his Department to co-ordinate implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD, and disability matters generally? There are people dealing with different aspects of disability across a whole series of departmental silos, and as a result we do not have a rights-based approach to disability matters in the context of the UNCRPD. For example, I met a woman recently who spoke about her son who has Down's syndrome and who is constantly having his medical card entitlement reviewed. In our own area at the moment there is a door-to-door transport service called Accessible Community Transport Southside, ACTS, for people who are wheelchair users and those with mobility issues. The service's lack of funding means several thousand people with mobility issues or who use wheelchairs and cannot use public transport are going to lose the service through the lack of a relatively small amount of money. I could go on. The problem is that all these things are dealt with by subsidiaries of departmental silos rather than having a co-ordinated approach, which the Taoiseach's Department should lead, towards ensuring a rights-based approach to disability matters in line with the implementation of UNCRPD.

As the Taoiseach is aware, I and many other Opposition Deputies have raised the issue of the Minister, Deputy Ryan's, controversial appointments to the Climate Change Advisory Council. I wish to raise these matters again today in the hope the Taoiseach will address our specific concerns. As the Taoiseach is aware, the Government rejected a Sinn Féin amendment to the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill last year that would have brought the appointments process to the advisory council in line with other public bodies. Specifically, our amendment was based on the process of appointments to the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission. Like his Minister, the Taoiseach has yet to explain why he continues to oppose an open and transparent system of appointments to the advisory council. This is a serious matter. The manner in which these appointments were made flies in the face of public administration norms and undermines the important work of eminently qualified people. The Taoiseach argues the appointments follow the letter of the law, but he does not acknowledge that his Government, which drafted the legislative provision, enabled the Minister to appoint party members as advisers in the first place. This is particularly relevant as the same legislation provides for the advisory council's significantly enhanced oversight functions. These are valid questions by the Opposition. Rather than play the man, surely the Taoiseach should now play the ball and explain why he and his Government opposes an open and transparent process of appointments to the Climate Change Advisory Council.

Deputy Kelly said that this Government is breaking all records when it comes to advisers. I do not accept that. To be fair, Deputy Kelly's party pioneered the whole idea of special advisers and programme managers.

It was a good idea.

When former Deputy Dick Spring became Tánaiste, he insisted on a very strong political advisory capacity behind the Government to implement the programme for Government. I agree with the Deputy that it is an important aspect of modern government, and that was an initiative taken by the Labour Party at the time. This is in line with that. We are a three-party coalition. If Deputy Kelly was in government as the leader of the Labour Party, he would demand the exact same accommodation in respect of advisers as the Green Party or the Fine Gael Party currently have. It is completely in line with the Public Service Management Act 1997. The limits are there. This is in accordance with those limits. It is also transparent and public. It is all done under the terms of the Public Service Management Act 1997. The Taoiseach and Tánaiste of the day, and their party leader in Government, may have more than two special advisers. A Minister of State who attends Cabinet may have two special advisers, and the Minister of State who does not attend Cabinet can have one special adviser. All special advisers must be formally appointed by the Government. The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has published guidelines setting out the arrangements for the staffing of ministerial offices for the Thirty-third Dáil.

On the issue of communications and texts, communications in respect of Government business must be available for freedom of information requests.

Deputy Kelly asked about the planning review. This was done in consultation with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy O'Brien. He is very keen this would take place. There is a very strong legal dimension to this with regard to the Acts and the laws that have been passed over the years. The need to streamline these from a legal perspective is very important. That is the exercise under way, and I believe it is a worthwhile exercise. Deputy Kelly himself had raised with me some time ago his sense that the An Bord Pleanála structure needed increased capacity. Deputy Kelly had identified to me that An Bord Pleanála was losing cases in the High Court a bit too regularly. That is the context for this review. It is not just about An Bord Pleanála; it is the full gamut of the planning system.

The Minister, ultimately, retains policy primacy in this and he has consulted with the Attorney General and he is satisfied that the Attorney General should lead the legal overhaul and consolidation of the Planning Acts. It is very important that we get this done. It has to come before the House and ultimately the Government has to decide and the Minister has to be satisfied from a policy perspective of any changes that may emerge from this. Obviously, if this is to manifest in legislation, which we hope it will, we will then be able to bring that before the House.

One of the challenges that we have in this country is getting major infrastructural projects through in a timely manner. Deputies will come into the House on a regular basis and will complain about how long the metro, or you name it - a whole range of projects - is taking. Housing is even taking an inordinate length of time to get done. We have an issue in getting projects developed, planned for and provided in a timely manner. In some instances it is taking the best part of a decade to get things done. On the Maritime Area Planning Bill 2021 about which there was a row earlier, one is still looking at years before wind energy projects will actually come on stream. I am very conscious of that delay which is now endemic in how we do infrastructure projects in this country and it is very problematic for our future development.

On Deputy Boyd Barrett's points, one of the big innovations of this Government was to move disability from health as a core responsibility to the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth - it is a long title - to try to give a singular focus to the question of disability. Operationally, the HSE will be involved in the delivery of services but from a policy perspective, there will be one key Department which will have the function of co-ordinating and developing policy and initiatives for people with disabilities. The Deputy has referred to a Down's syndrome child, for example. I would have thought they would have received the domiciliary care allowance and have automatic entitlement now to the medical card and certainly to the GP-----

The mother says they will have to come back to review it.

----- card, I think, but I will have to check that. That should not be happening.

There is a Cabinet social affairs subcommittee which has dealt with disability in the past and it is an opportunity to co-ordinate with other Government Departments. It is an area which demands co-ordination at the same time-----

It is not happening.

-----from transport, to work, to education and right across the board. One of the bigger areas that I am interested in - I am interested in all areas of special needs and disability - is employment. That area needs to be worked on much more pro-actively in getting agencies and Government Departments employing more people more quickly in respect of disabilities.

Deputy Mac Lochlainn raised the area of appointments, and these were transparent and in line with the legislation. He said that he put forward an amendment. There was a debate in the House on that amendment and his amendment lost. There comes a time when the Deputy must also accept parliamentary democracy at work. The two people concerned have considerable expertise in the area of environment and climate and have considerable academic experience which the Deputy seems to have ignored. He accused the Government of playing the man and not the ball. I argue from the outset of this that he has attempted to create a controversy and undermine the reputation of the individuals concerned and that is not fair.