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Priority Questions. - Languages Bill.

Tuesday, 3 December 2002

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 558 No. 4

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 72. Mr. O'Shea Information on Brian O'Shea Zoom on Brian O'Shea  asked the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs Information on Éamon Ó Cuív Zoom on Éamon Ó Cuív  further to Parliamentary Question No. 257 of 26 June, 2002, if he is still of the view that broadly speaking no significant additional costs are envisaged on Departments, over and above those already arising from obligations on Departments, in relation to the adoption by the Government in July 2000 of official languages equality as one of three new principles of quality customer services; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24660/02]

Éamon Ó Cuív: Information on Éamon Ó Cuív Zoom on Éamon Ó Cuív As I stated in reply to the Deputy's question of 26 June 2002, while no formal costing has been done in regard to the full implementation of the Official Languages (Equality) Bill, 2002, clearly there will be cost issues involved, particularly at start-up. Additional costs are likely to arise in connection with matters such as the establishment of the office of the Official Languages Commissioner, training, and bilingual and translation services. However, costs for individual Departments or State bodies, or on an overall basis, cannot be established until individual schemes have been agreed in accordance with the proposed legislation. For Departments complying with the non-statutory guidelines regarding the Irish language introduced some years ago, no significant costs should arise.

Mr. O'Shea: Information on Brian O'Shea Zoom on Brian O'Shea My concern is that, in effect, an aspirational Bill could be passed into law because the costing has not been done. We could end up with something that really does not promote the Irish language at all. I draw the Minister's attention to the provision of the Bill relating to legal proceedings, whereby people can ask to have their legal proceedings in either language. Looking at the courts system as a whole, providing translation facilities and so on for court cases would be a huge operation. Surely something as large as this in terms of cost is something the Department has looked at.

Éamon Ó Cuív: Information on Éamon Ó Cuív Zoom on Éamon Ó Cuív I am surprised at the Deputy's question because my predecessor, Deputy Michael D. Higgins, introduced voluntary guidelines, and he told us for years that these were working perfectly. The onus in relation to the Irish language under those voluntary guidelines is actually greater than I propose in this legislation. Allowing, no doubt, that he was successful in getting everybody to follow these guidelines, there will be no extra onus on the Department or any other agent of the State involved in implementing the voluntary guidelines. Or, is the Deputy telling me that those voluntary guidelines were just a sham?

[878]Mr. O'Shea: Information on Brian O'Shea Zoom on Brian O'Shea The Minister is well aware that there is a marked difference in practice between statutory obligations and voluntary guidelines. We are heading into a situation where people can demand certain services if they so desire. That there have been voluntary guidelines in operation is one scenario, but the Minister is moving this a step further, to a point where there will be a statutory obligation to provide services. That is the difference here. We do not need any sort of smart aleck talk about what somebody did in the past, we are focusing now on the future, I hope in a positive and constructive way. The Minister has not assured me in anything he said that his Department has gone into this in any depth in terms of the obligations that will arise. Has he carried out an investigation of any description in regard to the court scene?

Éamon Ó Cuív: Information on Éamon Ó Cuív Zoom on Éamon Ó Cuív In relation to issues in general and to the court scene, there is an existing constitutional right in relation to the Irish language and there have been court rulings in this regard. Therefore, in large measure, some of these rights already exist in law for anyone who wishes to exercise them. In those circumstances, I do not believe that costs will be a major problem. There will be some minor costs in setting up a specific office to monitor the Bill, but I imagine its implementation will much more relate to the efficient organising of existing resources rather than additional resources.

I have never understood why anyone would think that the appointment of people who are both Irish and English speakers to provide services to, for example, Gaeltacht areas would be any more expensive than the appointment of people who are English speakers only. This is more about planning and organisation than about costs. It is about targeting resources and using technology to make sure those resources are targeted where they are needed to provide the necessary services. That is what these plans are about. My Department will not receive any additional allocation to its administration budget to administer services even though it provides much more bilingual services than most Departments.

Mr. O'Shea: Information on Brian O'Shea Zoom on Brian O'Shea Is the Minister satisfied that there are sufficient Irish speakers, people who are líofa a dhóthain, to provide the necessary services across the wide range of Departments, Government agencies and so on listed in the Bill? The number of people who have líofacht as Gaeilge in the Civil Service is not what it is used to be.

Éamon Ó Cuív: Information on Éamon Ó Cuív Zoom on Éamon Ó Cuív Tá an ceart ag an Teachta. The Deputy is probably right in that there may not be as high a percentage now. I presume the number of Irish speakers in the public service would be at least the same as in the population at large. Therefore, I presume it would be in the region of 5% to 8%. With new technology we will be able [879] to provide greatly enhanced services to the public and to deliver the basic level of service.

With regard to the type of approach one could take, for example, there is a rule in terms of frontline services that a small number of people provide the majority of frontline services. In a major Department which has an information office, three people could man it on a full-time basis and a call from an Irish speaker anywhere in the country could be routed to that small pool of people. By using technology in this way quite a small reservoir of people can produce a significant improvement in the level of service.

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