Dáil Éireann - Volume 686 - 30 June, 2009

Adjournment Debate. - Bilingual Messages.

  Deputy John Perry: I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for this opportunity to raise the issue of pre-recorded bilingual messages in lifts and on telephone answering systems in Leinster House and other public buildings. Before moving on to speak on the specific issue of pre-recorded bilingual messages, I am compelled to observe that the lack of any response to my letters and telephone calls over the past 22 months is disappointing.

When I first wrote to the then Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Noel Ahern, in Sept 2007, I considered that my query related to a relatively minor technical issue and not a complex policy matter with international ramifications. After several follow-up telephone calls and no response, I then wrote to the current Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Martin Mansergh, in November 2008, again without any response. A situation such as this, where a Department will not respond in a businesslike manner to a written request for information, is deeply unsatisfactory.

[354] In the case of voice annunciators in lifts, that is to say, the voice that announces going up, down, floor numbers etc., making provision for a local person to record the bilingual annunciator messages and to have them included with new lifts being installed in State buildings, is a minor technical issue. It simply means that this requirement be included in the specification of equipment to the bidders, and then giving the selected lift supplier a tape recording of the actual messages to be used on installation. Retrofitting a locally recorded bilingual message into the annunciator unit is an equally small technical issue. For many modern lifts it is simply a matter of loading the new voice messages into the annunciator chip. This would cost in the order of €200 per chip. For older lifts it might require a new micro processor card, something smaller than the size of a 20 pack of cigarettes. I am advised that this would cost up to €1,000 per lift.

New voice chips, micro processor cards and indeed hand-held programmer units to record voice messages are available commercially. I understand that such a retrofit was carried out a few years ago in Áras Mhic Dhiarmada. A competition was held among the staff to find the best bilingual voice. They then recorded the standard messages to tape, had the annunciator chip reprogrammed and reinstalled on the three lifts. There was no problem in doing it.

Recording and retro installing bilingual voiced automated telephone greetings is even simpler than for lifts. Such message recording and installation is being done every day of the week in commercial and office premises across the country. There can be no valid reason as to why Leinster House cannot carry out the same procedure.

I ask the Minister of State to initiate a survey of lift and telephone messaging in public service buildings so as to quantify the work needed to retrofit locally recorded bilingual messages. I also ask him to ensure that the requirement for locally recorded bilingual messages is included in the specification of equipment for all future enquiries for lifts and telephone systems in the public sector.

  Deputy Martin Mansergh: It is a worthwhile objective that we have bilingual recordings, in both Irish and English, in all our new lift equipment in State buildings. The Deputy raised this issue with regard to Leinster House and I double-checked my recollection. Some lifts do not have any recordings at all in them. One certainly does and in the other one it is so faint as to be practically inaudible. The lifts in Leinster House operate on a different basis, depending on where they are located.

I have instructed the relevant officials to ensure that the standard specifications for lift equipment include such a requirement. I am assured that every reasonable step will be made to ensure that all new lifts will be fitted in this way. Similarly in the case of telephone answering equipment, the same thing is highly desirable. This is an issue for each Department and Government organisation. In the case of the Office of Public Works, every reasonable effort will be made to have this arrangement put in place.

The Office of Public Works procures or acquires buildings in a variety of ways, and in many cases this is well after the installation work is complete. Much of the building portfolio is rented and in these circumstances it is not always practical to manage immediately to have such facilities as the Deputy requests. The emphasis up to now has been on the safety and operational aspects of buildings. The Deputy will understand that in dealing with builders and contractors nearing the end of a project there are many pressures on all sides to reach an acceptable level of completion. In such circumstances and with the resources reasonably available, it is not always possible to attain perfection. Some things, which might be considered serviceable but [355] not entirely ideal, have been accepted. It has been the experience of the Office of Public Works that, even where money has been withheld, it has not always been possible to have changes or corrections made at the last minute.

In previous correspondence, the Deputy referred to Áras Mhic Dhiarmada as an example, where a local voice, both in Irish and English, was used in the enunciators in the lifts. The Office of Public Works arranged for the lift refurbishment works to be carried out as part of a lift replacement programme. In that case there was a competition among the staff to find the best enunciation and this was then used for the lifts. The Deputy will appreciate that the term “local accent” in a pluralist and indeed multicultural Ireland is somewhat more problematic than it might have seemed in the past and that conditions laid down have to be consistent with equality requirements. We find on trains these days that eastern European accents have become local accents.

It is estimated that there are 400 to 500 lifts approximately in buildings for which OPW is responsible across the country. I am advised that it is not considered practicable that there would now be a programme of work to revisit each site and retrofit either a new announcement in the existing equipment, or replace the enunciator equipment as might be required. The cost of this, even by the Deputy’s own estimates, would be at least €100,000. In reality, the total cost would be well in excess of this, when management and processing costs are taken into account.

It is reasonable that the specification for all new installations will require a bilingual message in enunciators in lifts. I would like to assure the Deputy that the OPW will ensure that all reasonable steps will be taken so that this will be done. Also, particular emphasis will be given to ensuring compliance with this, when buildings are being handed over on completion of the works. It is hoped also that other organisations in the State will follow suit.