Adjournment Matters

Official Languages Act 2003 Compliance

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy John Perry, to the House.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire Stáit as ucht teacht anseo. Tá aiféala orm é a choinneáil ó Shligeach. I apologise for keeping the Minister of State away from Sligo.

I raise an issue that was brought to my attention recently. The Official Languages Act, which has been in place since 2003, places obligations on semi-State bodies and Departments to introduce language schemes to ensure that citizens who wish to conduct business through the medium of Irish can do so. The 650 bodies covered by the Act include larger organisations such as An Garda Síochána, the Revenue Commissioners, Departments, local authorities and so forth and smaller entities such as the Leader companies and the organisation for the registration of co-operatives, etc. The process to be followed is that the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht must write to each of the organisations covered by the Act requesting that it implement a language scheme. Once a scheme has been drawn up by the relevant body, it is submitted to the Department for ratification. Once ratified, the Language Commissioner may then proceed to police the scheme, as it were.

This Official Languages Act is important legislation for those who try to do their work through the medium of Irish. It has become clear, however, that there is a significant deficit in the number of bodies which have implemented a scheme. At this point, the Minister has ratified 95 schemes covering 181 public bodies, which means more than 450 organisations have not yet been asked to submit a draft scheme since 2003. Some of the bodies concerned are large, and include the Health Service Executive, RTE and An Post, with which people interact as Gaeilge on a daily basis, and two Departments, namely, An Roinn Caiteachais Phoiblí agus Athchóirithe agus An Roinn Leanaí agus Gnóthaí Óige Phoiblí.

It has been more than seven years since some organisations were asked to submit a draft scheme. It is shocking to learn that of the 95 schemes ratified to date, 71 are out of date, some for three, four and five years. To summarise the position, of the more than 650 public bodies in the State, 450 have not been asked to draft an Irish language scheme and of the 95 language schemes ratified by the Department, 71 or 75% are out of date. If such disregard were to be shown for any other Act, there would be a national outcry.

Strange as it may seem, the specific issue I raise tonight was brought to my attention by a person who has investments with the National Treasury Management Agency, which falls within the remit of the Act. The individual in question has tried to conduct some business with the NTMA. From what I can discern, the Department has not asked the agency to produce a draft Irish language scheme. When does the Minister intend writing to the NTMA requesting that it draft a scheme? When does he expect such a scheme to be ratified and when will ordinary citizens be able to interact as Gaeilge with this State sponsored body?

I thank the Senator for giving me the opportunity to address the Seanad on the subject of the Official Languages Act 2003. I express my gratitude to Senators for the interest they have shown in this matter.

The Official Languages Act was signed into law on 14 July 2003. This was the first time that the provision of State services in general through Irish was placed on a statutory footing. The aim of the Act is to increase and improve over a period the quantity and quality of services in Irish that public bodies, designated under the Act, provide. In addition to the general obligations on public bodies under the Act regarding communications, publications, stationery, signage, etc., it is as a result of language schemes that are agreed with public bodies that a system is in place to improve the number and standard of services available to the public through Irish.

In addition to the general obligations on public bodies under the Act regarding communications, publications, stationery, signage etc., it is as a result of language schemes agreed with public bodies that a system is in place to improve the number and standard of services available to the public through Irish. Some 109 language schemes have been agreed with public bodies since the Official Languages Act came into effect. These schemes cover 194 public bodies in total. Although approximately 600 public bodies come under the Act, the schemes that are in place cover those bodies that have most contact with the public. It should be noted that the provisions of each scheme remain in force until a new scheme is agreed.

To date, the National Treasury Management Agency has not been asked to prepare a scheme under section 11 of the Act. This is because the focus has primarily been on agreeing schemes with bodies that have the most contact with the public. I hope the Senator will appreciate that the National Treasury Management Agency would not fall into that category.

The system of language schemes is a central part of the Act and I understand the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht is committed to operating and improving the system in order that it operates effectively across the entire public sector. I understand staff restructuring was undertaken in the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht earlier in the year, as a result of which extra staff are now dealing specifically with the Official Languages Act.

It should be noted, of course, that there has been a considerable change in the State's economic circumstances since the Act was enacted and there have been large reductions in the budgets provided for public bodies in addition to the moratorium on recruitment. These difficult circumstances pose particular challenges for public bodies, particularly with regard to increasing the quality and quantity of the Irish language services they are able to commit to under their language schemes.

Clearly, the language scheme system under the Official Languages Act is not without its faults, and it should be acknowledged that it is a complex process to agree and confirm schemes, particularly in the challenging economic environment we are currently facing. Notwithstanding these difficulties, five schemes have been confirmed to date this year, and approximately 120 draft schemes from public companies are being considered currently. Therefore, I hope there will be an increase in the number of schemes that will be confirmed in the future.

As the Senator will be aware, the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht is conducting a review of the Official Languages Act, in accordance with the commitments given in the programme for Government. The review covers all the provisions of the Act, including those relating to language schemes. The objectives of the review are to ensure that the Act is an effective mechanism to support the development of Irish in a cost-effective manner, and that the obligations arising from the Act are appropriate to ensure the satisfactory provision of services in Irish by public bodies which are in line with demand.

A comprehensive review of the legislation has been undertaken by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht which included a public consultation process, as a result of which approximately 1,600 replies were received. In accordance with the Government's legislative programme, it is hoped that the official languages (amendment) Bill will be published this year, in which provision will be made for the amendments to the Act arising from the review. The appropriate steps are being taken by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht to draft the heads of Bill and it is hoped that the draft heads will be submitted to the Government as soon as possible. The results of the recommendations received through the consultation process have been analysed and they will be published in due course on the Department's website with the heads of Bill. The Bill will provide for amendments to the legislation arising from the review. In addition, it will provide for amendments arising from the decision to merge the Office of the Irish Language Commissioner with the Office of the Ombudsman, as specified in the Government's public service reform plan. I trust that this provides sufficient information to the House on the steps that are being undertaken by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht under the Official Languages Act 2003.

I am concerned with part of the answer that indicates that due to budgetary constraints any State body is allowed not to implement the law of the land. The Official Languages Act is the law of the land, regardless of whether we like it. I cannot think of any other law that any semi-State body would be allowed or ordered not to implement because of budgetary constraints. The use of the phrase "there has been a considerable change in the State's economic circumstances since the Act was enacted" by the Minister of State indicates that the Government is willing to allow semi-State bodies and Departments to turn a blind eye to the law of the land. That is a matter of serious concern and I ask the Minister of State to convey that message to his Cabinet colleagues.

I am not overstating the reply. The Minister stated clearly that a new legislative programme was coming on stream. I will certainly bring to the attention of the Minister the concerns expressed by the Senator.

The Seanad adjourned at 10.15 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Friday, 19 July 2013.