Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 24 October 2012
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Transport and Communications
Review of Irish Coast Guard Service: Discussion
Representatives from the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport and the Irish Coast Guard will brief the committee on the future of the Irish Coast Guard in light of the value for money review conducted by Fisher Associates.
I welcome Mr. Maurice Mullen, assistant secretary at the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, Mr. Chris Reynolds, Mr. Eugene Clonan and Mr. Gerry Smullen of the Irish Coast Guard. I do not propose to detail the rights of witnesses under the Defamation Act as I am sure they have heard it already today, however Members and witnesses are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
Due to a family bereavement this morning, the Chairman is unable to be present. The Vice Chairman was unavailable and I have been asked by the committee to chair the meeting. Let me notify members, witnesses and those in the Visitors Gallery that we must vacate the room by 1.45 p.m. I want witnesses and members to be cognisant of the time and that the meeting must end by 1.45 p.m.
Mr. Maurice Mullen:
I thank the Chairman and members for inviting me and my colleagues from the Irish Coast Guard to appear before the committee. We are pleased to be able to facilitate the committee in any way we can.
Two value for money reports were commissioned at the same time. The Department for Transport, Tourism and Sport commissioned these as part and parcel of the arrangements for the Croke Park agreement. The focus of both reports was on value for money. Both reports are on the Department's website and are available to the public. No decisions have been taken on the implementation of those recommendations. There is a process of review underway in the Department, where both reports and various recommendations from internal and external audits are being examined with the objective of producing an action plan to address a number of what we would regard as significant deficiencies that have been identified, for example our ability to respond to major pollution incidences, the need to strengthen coastal unit training and other related issues across the maritime safety field. We take both reports and the recommendations from audits as part of an integrated approach to developing and promoting greater safety and emergency response in the marine arena. We are not in a position to comment on the reports at present because we have not completed our work on them. We have not presented the Minister with formal recommendations to inform policy decisions. There is significant interest in the contentious issues but these are policies issues which ultimately must be the subject of a policy decision. We also recognise that whatever we do will require phased changes because we cannot at any stage fail to continue to provide the best service we can with the resources we have available. At the same time, we face difficulties. We are very stretched for resources and we have identified gaps.
Changes in the way in which these services can be delivered have been suggested by consultants. As part of the review of preparing the action plan, we are testing and analysing the services to see whether we think the recommendations stand up. The workload across the board, in the Coast Guard and in the Marine Survey Office, which is the regulatory end of the maritime safety regime, has increased enormously, and that is part of the dilemma we face. We have to make headway. We are the senior management for delivery service and we have to examine the various options. Part and parcel of the Croke Park agreement is to get better value for money, find new ways of dealing with issues, free up resources where we can for redeployment to address the service gaps and try to streamline where we can, all of which must be done in the context of maintaining safety and the priorities associated with it, based on good risk assessment and keeping that to the forefront.
The value for money review recommended that a different search and rescue co-ordination model should be adopted. It recommended moving to two rather than three stations and left it open as to exactly how the system should operate. Fisher Associates believes there are greater efficiencies to be had and that it is for management, therefore, to take that on board and see whether the Department agrees and can focus on getting more from there. In support of its case, the review refers to difficulties in running with the current services which include the fact that we are relying heavily on overtime to keep three stations in operation. It also believes there are operational issues and that, with a smaller number of stations, one gets more from people being together rather than being in disparate locations. It also knows there are different wider social factors that have to come into play and given that people are in place, there are human resource factors that have to be taken on board.
The Department is examining what is the best way to move forward and how it can better use technology that would, perhaps, give results. How does the Department deal with the HR issues and should it go with a model that calls for change? We have not decided that yet. I stress we have not gone back to the Minister at this time. We are keen to hear what people have to say and we know there is much debate yet to take place on these matters.
I welcome the Deputy Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Mr. John Dallat, MLA, who is accompanied by Alderman Maura Hickey, Deputy Mayor of Coleraine, and Councillor Orla Beattie, member of Limavady Borough Council. I have 13 speakers offering and will take them in groups of three, starting with Deputies Noel Harrington, Pádraig Mac Lochlainn and Tom Fleming, in that order.
I do not represent any of the constituencies affected by Malin or Valentia, but some of the recommendations in the Fisher Associates review are of genuine concern to the maritime community. Many of them concern the operating structures in place in Valentia and Malin and the confidence and professionalism in the fishing, leisure and general maritime industry which has been displayed for decades in what is a difficult and challenging coastline. I note several incidents have taken place, for example, the incident with Rambler 100, where, were it not for the expertise and professionalism of the unit at Valentia, there is no doubt many lives would have been lost. The unit was able to predict where casualties had drifted almost to within metres, which was an extraordinary feat. I have serious concerns about the consultation process that took place between the consultants and the volunteer Coast Guard units along the coast. Their opinion could have been better portrayed, to say the least, in the review.
I am deeply concerned as to how the Coast Guard or the Department can show that amalgamating, closing, splitting or changing the work practices at either Malin Head or Valentia stations would help safety issues, particularly on the western seaboard, and how the consolidation of the centre in Dublin and a back-up centre, also in the Dublin area, would increase safety, irrespective of cost issues. According to the Fisher review, there are cost issues that would have to be dealt with in any event, whether through increased staff or deficiencies in pollution control mechanisms or protocols. The proposal to interact to a greater degree with the Marine Survey Office, the Coast Guard and-or other agencies as recommended should clearly address other issues, but sacrificing vitally important coastal safety infrastructure is a matter of concern to the maritime community. I am concerned as to how that could possibly improve safety issues. There are great people in those stations. I am strongly opposed to the recommendations. There may be other ways of dealing with the issue. It is timely that we can discuss the review prior to recommendations coming before the Minister.
There has been a remarkable series of events since the Deloitte & Touche report in 2002 and we have almost come full circle given that so much has happened. Following that report, it appeared the Malin Head and Valentia Coast Guard stations would be closed. The then Minister, Dermot Ahern was in situ at that time. Around 21 October 2003 it appeared as if he would maintain Malin Head and Valentia and close the Dublin station. Later during the term of office of the then Minister, Noel Dempsey, it was suggested that Malin Head and Valentia be closed. After much deliberation the coastal communities in and around Kerry and Cork came together with the communities not only in Donegal, but across the north west, as exemplified by the presence of Mr. John Dallat, MLA, representing that community, based on the fact that we had the necessary technological capacity to sustain the situation. More importantly, we had the support of the maritime communities, including the emergency rescue communities who are the practitioners on the ground and know the need for people who understand and can identify the specific geographic location and know the terrain. All of those factors came into play and once again we thought the question would be resolved and there would be three locations, Valentia, Malin Head and Dublin, where marine rescue services would be co-ordinated. Then there was a directive that equipment would be purchased and all the centres would be upgraded. The equipment was purchased but it was put into storage in rented space in Blanchardstown for so long that apparently the manufacturer's warranty expired. It appears the Department has sought a new warranty. I welcome the fact that hundreds of thousands of euro have been invested in upgrading Malin Head station and Valentia will also be upgraded, but where is the sense in returning to the matter when we thought the issue was resolved? What agenda is at play? Why do we keep coming back to the issue of having to defend the services at Malin Head and Valentia?
I understand that discussions have taken place between staff and unions with senior management and the Minister.
What would the cost savings be if the Department were to close the stations at Malin Head and Valentia? The stations would still have to be maintained and they have vital communications equipment and antennae. There would have to be security at the stations to maintain them. Staff would have to be transferred and many staff will simply take early retirement. Where are the cost savings in real terms and where is the logic in all of this?
Finally, did the Department consult during the consultation process? I can only speak authoritatively about Malin Head. Did the Department consult the Donegal Mountain Rescue Team, the RNLI, the Coast Guard staff at the stations, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the government agencies in the North responsible for maritime safety or with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in Northern Ireland? Were all these agencies consulted? Finally, if we can put this to bed and get a solution-----
I welcome the witnesses today. The old adage holds that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it". These stations have been performing very efficiently in every respect. They have gained a considerable amount of knowledge, experience and expertise throughout the years. We should consider the retention and enhancement of the structures in place. Regardless of what any service does, there is always room for improvement and this is what we should be considering.
The value of these stations is well known. It is baffling and difficult to comprehend because hundreds of thousands of euro worth of new radio and communications equipment is being installed in Valentia. The station's main operations room is being upgraded and other rooms have been prepared to host equipment for a more automated service. Kerry County Council has spent €150,000 on upgrading the access road. Something similar is happening at the station at Malin Head. More than €1 million of investment has been made at the time when money is scarce in the country. The issue is the location. The staff work out in the most treacherous seas in the north Atlantic terrain. They go out over 200 miles into the ocean performing their duties and services. They are working marvellously.
I received a reply to a written question from the Minister yesterday. I note that these changes in the main are not about saving money and that is fair enough. A newspaper report was published yesterday and reference was made to the possibility of political strokemanship by the Minister. I will take his response clearly. I did not raise this matter in the question but the Minister replied that no consideration was being given regarding the location of a so-called redundancy centre in Blanchardstown or the Dublin 15 area, a matter which, the answer noted, had been the subject of some speculation. I take his word and his credibility on this and he is a man of high ethics and dignity. We should get back to the Minister and consider the merits of what we have in place. I believe he will act in a positive manner.
Mr. Maurice Mullen:
I can understand fully the sentiments being expressed and the deeply held concerns. We agree with the idea of local knowledge and input. The contribution those services have made and continue to make is fantastic. Deputy Fleming asked an interesting question and suggested that it if was not broken, then why fix it. We believe a considerable part of the service is working very well in this case but the consultants have pointed to things that are not working well and we must address these. That is incumbent on the management side. Even as we speak, there is a drive towards information technology development and a far more integrated approach to the service. We are dealing with functionality rather than simply the geographic location of services. It may be the case that geographic location is less important in terms of the way in which we ultimately address the problem.
I emphasise that a considerable amount of consultation has taken place. Neither the Department nor the Coast Guard in any way directed how the consultation should go. We asked Fisher Associates to go out on the ground. They went to the stations and consulted a considerable number of local interests and stakeholders but we stood back from that. We did not direct that they should go to any particular group. In fact we do not know all the individuals with whom they consulted. I emphasise that we have not decided on the merit of these recommendations or on the context in which ultimately we bring them forward. This goes back to the idea of an integrated service. Even if we retain three stations, the future of the service must involve a far greater integrated approach. This is how we must think about it but it is a complex thing.
Another major issue for us is the resource issue. We must deal with the issue of value for money. The world has changed for all of us and that is the position we are in at this stage. We must see how we can use the resources better to provide services across the board within the Coast Guard and to address the gaps in place.
No, Deputy, there are other speakers. Ten people have signalled their intention. You can come back in if we have time. The next group is made up of Deputy McConalogue, Deputy Spring and Senator Sheahan.
I have no wish to delay unnecessarily and I will not go over the detail relating to the value of the stations at Malin Head and Valentia or the work they have carried out for more than 100 years, but I wish to address the nub of the issue. In the Department's view, what is the rationale for the Fisher report and what is the rationale given by the Fisher report for recommending a two-centre mirror model? Is it primarily in terms of savings and staff? Do the stations at Malin Head and Valentia have the capacity or are they up to the level required to carry out the job? My experience from my inquiries is that they are but I seek a clear answer from the Department in terms of whether they have the capacity to do the job and whether they are doing it well. If the Department were to adopt Fisher's recommendation of a two-centre model with Dublin being the primary base, would it require a new building in Dublin?
My understanding is that the current operation base in Dublin is part of an OPW building and that it does not provide the level of security or stand-alone requirements needed for running a centre. For example, if an issue arose in another part of the building it may lead to the evacuation of that building. If the Fisher recommendation were to be implemented, would there be a requirement for a new building in some part of Dublin? If so, what would the cost be? Whose decision is it in terms of whether we go with the current three-centre set up or whether we move to a two-centre set-up? Can the Department officials clarify whether that is a decision for the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport and whether it is entirely within his remit?
I will be brief. The overarching principle is safety for people at sea and that people can call for help. Two thirds of all calls are being dealt with in Valentia at the moment. My questions relate to staffing in future. In 2007, it was apparent that Valentia never had any problems with staffing but this has been undermined on many occasions since. The uncertainty gives rise to people being unable to give a commitment to reside in Valentia. I offer an example. A total of 17 positions should be filled in Valentia, 11 of which are filled at the moment. Five of these people do not live in Kerry and commute great distances, from as far away as Offaly and Galway.
If those people make a life down there - buy a house, for example, and start a family - and should their jobs subsequently be moved to Dublin, their investment, both family and economic, will be lost. That type of uncertainty is damaging and undermining, as I have pointed out to the Minister. There must be clarity as to the future direction and operation of the Coast Guard service.
There are difficulties in regard to the technical and staffing sides into the future and, in addition, there is the socioeconomic aspect. In the case of Valentia Island, for instance, its population has declined from a high of more than 3,000 in the past to only 600 today. We must bear in mind the situation of the people living there and those who might wish to make their home there in the future. It is important that the myth is dispelled that the age profile of people working on Valentia is more than 60 years of age - that simply is not true. Another issue to consider is the apparent failure to attract people there, with only 11 of the 17 positions filled thus far. What might be discouraging interested parties? In a situation where what is deemed the best economic model is put in place, which might see a centralisation of the service in Dublin or elsewhere, how much will it cost to shut down the services at Malin Head and Valentia? Are the delegates really of the view that the socioeconomic aspect of this, outside of the balance sheet issue, would stack up?
Despite its apparent remit, I have found very little reference in the entire report to the concept of value for money. In that regard, will Mr. Mullen indicate - I realise it is a very blunt question - whether Valentia Island and Malin Head are giving value for money? In the meeting I had with the Minister, he raised the issue of oil pollution prevention and response, an issue that is referenced in the report. In my view, this is nothing but a red herring. Colleagues will recall that when an incident of oil pollution occurred two years ago off the United States, that country struggled greatly to deal with it. If an oil tanker were to go down off the coast of Kerry, I am not convinced that the entire Irish Coast Guard service could deal with it. Let us be straight about this - the references to providing a pollution prevention and response service, both by the Minister and in this report, are, to be frank, mere tokenism.
There has been mention of the recruitment embargo and the constraints on public sector staffing resources, but it is my understanding that there is no ban on recruitment for emergency services. In fact, such recruitment may be initiated at the behest of the Minister. As such, I ask colleagues to join me to in calling on him to recruit immediately the staff required to man and provide the services at their best level. Are the delegates satisfied that the Fisher report accurately reflects the contribution made by the hundreds of volunteers in the Coast Guard? In my own area, for instances, volunteers work in Dingle, Ballybunion, Glenderry, Waterville and Valentia. Are they getting due credit for the service they provide? Is Mr. Mullen satisfied that these locations are adequately resourced to provide the service that is expected of them?
Finally, is there any timeframe for a decision on the report, a decision I assume will be made by the Minister?
Mr. Maurice Mullen:
This is clearly a policy decision and, as such, is a matter for the Minister. There is no question about that.
The Senator's question as to whether Valentia Island and Malin Head provide value for money is an important one. I do not hesitate to say that there has been a very fine performance in both locations and right across the Coast Guard service. The issue for us in terms of value for money is the question of how, across the whole integrated service, the total expenditure stacks up vis-à-vis the service we receive. The Fisher report deals with this issue in its consideration of the merits of two locations versus three and so on. The rationale for recommending two, as set out in the report, is based on a bigger picture perspective which also considers the question of how more jobs might be saved. In fact, the report identifies five potential centres - we are considering all of the possibilities - but argues that operating two centres, where there are more staff available in each station, has a huge number of additional benefits in terms of the strength of the service that can be provided. Such a scenario would mean, for example, that staff are less isolated, training would be more easily facilitated and there would be more cohesion and co-ordination in dealing with incidents and so forth. All of this is not to say that the current model does not offer very good value and a good service. As I said, we are reviewing all of the recommendations. If one looks at it across the board, however, the report does come down on the side of a more centralised model.
For members' information, it is not the case that Valentia handles two thirds of all incidents. In fact, Valentia handles some 40% of incidents, Malin deals with approximately 20% and Dublin handles a slightly higher percentage than Valentia.
The issue of socioeconomic impacts, as referred to by Deputy Arthur Spring, is an important one. What the Fisher report says on this matter is that the Department can advise on what we consider the best operational arrangements. It is a matter for Ireland Inc., as represented by this committee, the Oireachtas and the Government, to work out the implications from a social perspective in the context of the types of problems facing the country as a whole and the particular communities we are discussing.
I disagree with Senator Sheahan that the issue of oil pollution and prevention is a red herring in this discussion. If, as the Senator posits, a major oil tanker were to go down off the Irish coast, clearly every resource would be brought into play, not only within the Coast Guard but also from the Marine Survey Office, the Naval Service and everywhere else. Everybody would be on board. Below that worst case scenario, however, there is a whole array of intermediate possibilities, whether pollution in harbours, pollution around particular sensitive coastal areas and so on. What the Fisher report is saying is that we should have plans in place - plans that are well tested and approved - for such eventualities. That type of expertise is available in a delimited way within the Coast Guard and in the case of a major accident it would not be expected to act alone. It does, however, have a role to play in this area in respect of smaller incidents involving, for instance, a 10, 15 or 20 km stretch of coastline, which can have a devastating impact in the particular area. The report is simply saying that we must be ready to respond in those types of instances.
The Fisher report acknowledges the enormous contribution of the voluntary sector and the substantial expertise which exists within it. There is no question but that our coastal units are doing a superb job and will continue to do so. We are examining the proposal contained in the report that from a management perspective, certain units should be amalgamated. The report points out that while some coastal units are constantly busy and their staff always on the go, it is important to ensure that units which have less business and whose staff subsequently have less operational experience are continually trained so that in the event of an incident, they are fully capable of dealing with it. We are discussing these proposals. As Mr. Reynolds and his colleagues have pointed out, Ireland Inc. does receive a huge benefit from the service as it is currently delivered. There are different ways in which we can proceed in order to ensure that coastal units remain strong and active and available to their communities when they are needed. That is the perspective from which the Fisher report examined the issue.
Mr. Maurice Mullen:
We are examining all the different suggestions and costing them to establish what will be required. It is purely speculation but if the Dublin centre was to be used on its own, there would have to be some form of backup and there are different approaches to the provision of backup but it does not necessarily mean there would be a second station. The centre in Dublin is located in a building owned by the State, in the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport in Dublin.
On the MRCC building in Dublin, according to the information I was given, no risk assessment of this building was done. Mr. Mullen can correct me on this but I understand that in the past 16 to 18 months since personnel have been there, there have been outages and issues with the power and the fire alarm. Anyone who works in the Coast Guard service will know that utmost priority is given to health and safety and to best practice. Is the Department satisfied with the safety of the building in Leeson Lane in light of the information that was received on foot of a freedom of information request by a member of the public? Is the building fit for purpose? To use a seafaring analogy, there is a lot of fog around everything here and I cannot see through it. Perhaps the matter can be clarified and when the fog lifts, we may get some clarity. Is Mr. Mullen satisfied this building is fit for purpose in view of the information that has been given?
I thank the committee for agreeing to the request to have this meeting today and it is important that it is being held. In terms of questions, the problem is the time allocation. Clearly the allocation of 45 minutes is-----
I clarify that the clerk to the committee is examining the possibility of reconvening the meeting at 2.30 p.m. if we can get a room. He is working on that. Deputy Tom Fleming, who is a member of the committee, has agreed to chair the meeting if it can be reconvened. I will not be available at 2.30 p.m., the Chairman has suffered a bereavement and the Vice Chairman is not available, but Deputy Fleming has agreed to chair the meeting if a room is available at 2.30 p.m. This matter is of major concern to the members present and I want to be fair to people. We are examining if an alternative room will be available for the meeting to be reconvened at 2.30 p.m.
I welcome that because, as the Acting Chairman said, this a very important issue. It is not fair that any member would not have an opportunity to probe this matter. As is evident from the turnout from all hues of the political spectrum, from Kerry and Donegal in particular, there is massive interest in this matter.
I wish to ask about the need for a station in Dublin. Other countries do not rely on the concept of co-location so why is that deemed necessary here? For example, in 1985, Valentia co-ordinated the response to the Air India disaster and there was no significant intervention from headquarters in that case. Is this something that has been considered or why would Mr. Mullen say that there is a need for co-location?
I also wish to ask about equipment installation. Given that 80% of emergencies are dealt with between the Malin and Valentia stations, why was equipment fitted out in the Dublin station before those two stations given that the 2008 Fearon report stated that this equipment is subject to catastrophic failure, which in layman's terms could lead to loss of life? Why was the Dublin station prioritised? Was that part of something bigger of which we are not aware?
On another equipment-related matter, an emergency call was picked up off Galley Head and the crew of the MV Janet Roberto was rescued. In the five months prior to that rescue, I understand a distress signal could not have been picked up in that area. Why was that situation allowed to continue for five months in the later half of 2011? Also, it has come to my attention that on 14 October some of the obsolete equipment in the Valentia station failed, the Dublin station could not take control of the situation and the Malin station had to step in to take over until the Valentia station came back online. What was that situation allowed to prevail?
I thank the clerk to the committee for working to find a solution to the time constraints we face. It is important members get an opportunity for a proper hearing on this issue today. I welcome back the delegation. This is the big boomerang issue of the past 20 years. We had the PricewaterhouseCoopers report in 1998, the Deloitte & Touche report in 2001, the Fearon report in 2008 and now we are back dealing with the issue again. I have four questions for Mr. Maurice Mullen. Why was the Fisher report commissioned? Who commissioned it? Did the Minister request this new report and when was it commissioned? We all have one common ground on this. The people in the Visitors Gallery, the members of the delegation and ourselves all have a problem, although I do not underestimate the problem facing the delegation, be it the recruitment embargo, issues around training or the pollution control issue. Furthermore, the Minister has a problem. He has a report on his desk and if a pollution issue arises tomorrow morning off Dingle, Malin Head or in the Irish Sea, should he take responsibility or would he be in control of the situation? Therefore, he has a problem and we all have a problem. However, from consulting with everybody concerned, including the Minister and the delegates - I was delighted to see Mr. Chris Reynolds in Malin Head during the summer - I appreciate we all have solutions to this problem. Mr. Reynolds's personnel, the people in the Visitors Gallery, the volunteers, the Coast Guard units, the Minister, the fishermen, the people living along the coast and even the politicians have solutions. I am not talking about parochial backyard interests here. Deputy Noel Harrington is not a Kerry man or a Donegal man.
I have a few questions for Mr. Chris Reynolds. Has he examined the Canadian model which, effectively, is a state-run public-private pollution control model, which is very interesting and as far as I am led to believe does not require the recruitment of additional staff? It is very much a public-led programme-strategy. The Canadians have a plan that involves outsourcing to the private sector if an incident occurs. Has he evaluated in detail the potential to have a cross-Border pollution control plan? It great to have Mr. John Dallat, MLA, from Stormont here.
Obviously, there must be some form of pollution control plan for Northern Ireland. Furthermore, has this issue been considered in a British-Irish context? In the event of a tanker going down in the Irish Sea, it does not merely affect people in counties Wexford, Dublin or Louth, it also affects people on the west coast of the United Kingdom. I am aware of the existence of a pollution control plan within the United Kingdom, although I suppose one must be careful of calling it the United Kingdom at present, given the differences of opinion in Scotland as to whether it will remain that way in the future. Is there a follow-up from the joint bilateral agreement between the Taoiseach and David Cameron in April 2012 regarding more bilateral co-operation on a United Kingdom-Ireland basis? In a practical example that hopefully will take place before the end of the year, the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Rabbitte, and his British counterpart, Ed Davey, will sign a joint declaration on a memorandum of understanding on a British-Irish basis in respect of energy. Has either the Department or the Coast Guard considered the potential for British-Irish co-operation?
As for the boomerang issue that keeps coming back to haunt us all, namely, the stations at Malin and Valentia, has consideration been given or detailed exploration made of the potential to really engage with the Coast Guard units, the volunteers and the local authorities to draw up a consistent plan that takes in all the Departments? Everyone is familiar with the difficulties pertaining to regulation and associated with people in Ireland looking after their own patch and their own piece of turf, as well as with interdepartmental blockages. Has real consideration been given to the possibility of taking an overall holistic approach to all the issues? There are many issues, including those pertaining to safety at sea and lifejackets, as well as incidents to be considered by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney. Other issues concern the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar. Given the existence of so many issues with cross-departmental dimensions, has consideration been given to examining a holistic approach under the umbrella of the Taoiseach and the plan produced by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney, Harnessing Our Ocean Wealth, not simply in respect of resources, but also in respect of safety at sea and maritime issues? Finally, in the context of the further analysis that I assume will take place, I will direct some questions to Mr. Maurice Mullen. Will it be carried out in-house or on an independent basis? Have terms of reference been drawn up and what is the timeframe?
Mr. Maurice Mullen:
I thank members for their questions. First, on whether the current centre in Dublin located on Leeson Lane is fit for purpose, it is owned by the State and the Office of Public Works, OPW, maintains it as fit for purpose. There are fire drills and everything else that is managed in it. We are satisfied and have had no intimation from the OPW that there is anything wrong with it as it is newly developed, etc. The second, linked, question was on the reason Dublin was first, which is a fair enough question. The centre was located in a building beside the current one, which had a significant asbestos problem and consequently it was prioritised for development. The entire centre was moved out and as part of this redevelopment of the centre in the adjoining building, the entire development, including the communications elements, was also completed. This reflects what has now been completed at Malin and shortly will be completed at Valentia as well. As for the logic for the Dublin centre, it is a station that provides both a local response in the sense that each of the three stations has particular areas for which it is responsible, as well as a national response in respect of a number of elements. Moreover, it provides a response to the majority of instances that arise.
Mr. Chris Reynolds:
We track 75 different metrics on a daily basis. The metrics include the type of vessel, whether it is inshore or offshore, etc. These are the metrics we track. Perhaps the Deputy is referring to the Coast Guard distress and urgency broadcasts for which the breakdown for Dublin, Valentia and Malin is 70, 200 and 112, respectively.
Mr. Chris Reynolds:
No. They are mayday relays and pan-pan relays. For example, a boat in trouble will call the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard operator will launch assets to it and will then relay to shipping in the area a mayday relay broadcast or, if it was not at a mayday level, a pan-pan broadcast. Consequently, off Valentia, for example, where it might take a while to get an asset to the place of difficulty, the operator might rebroadcast this between five and ten times, each of which is counted as a mayday relay broadcast in the statistics. On the east coast, however, given the closer range, the chances of being obliged to relay maydays so often are smaller. That may be the statistic to which reference is being made and it pertains to mayday relay broadcasts and pan-pan rebroadcasts. As for the statistical breakdown between centres, Dublin is slightly busier than Valentia and Valentia is busier than Malin. This has been fairly consistent throughout the years.
I again apologise to everyone but the Joint Committee on Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform is due to occupy this room. With members' agreement, I propose the joint committee suspend its sitting until 2.30 p.m. and reconvene in committee room one under the chairmanship of Deputy Tom Fleming. I further propose that, with their agreement, the witnesses also return. Before I conclude, the order for the next group of speakers will be Senator Moloney, Deputy Healy-Rae, Senator Daly, Senator Ó Domhnaill and Mr. John Dallat, MLA, from the Stormont Assembly Is that agreed? Agreed.
At the outset, I welcome Mr. John Dallat, MLA, who is the Deputy Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly. He is accompanied by Alderman Maura Hickey and Councillor Orla Beattie, whom I also welcome. We look forward to their contributions later. In the meantime, some questions were asked and they need to be responded to by Mr. Mullen.
The order of speakers is as follows: Senator Marie Moloney, Deputy Michael Healy-Rae, Senator Mark Daly and Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill. I now call on Mr. Mullen to reply.
Mr. Maurice Mullen:
I made the point before the lunch break about why Dublin was equipped and developed and its current status. My colleague, Mr. Chris Reynolds, director, will deal with the questions that were posed about the equipment issues, including failure, in Valentia, and also the plans to re-equip Valentia. Malin has recently been completed and we intend to do the same in Valentia shortly. Mr. Reynolds will explain that point.
A series of questions were asked by Deputy Joe McHugh about the Fisher report. It was commissioned because under the current arrangements for dealing with appointments in the public service, the embargo prevents posts from being filled. However, in certain instances, the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform will allow priority for posts of an urgent nature to be filled. To do that, one has to be able to show that every effort is being made to achieve value for money. In that context, we would not be able to continue filling posts, including the radio officers, etc., without having a full value for money report completed. That is under the Croke Park arrangements.
The second question was who commissioned the report and the answer is that the Department commissioned it. The third question was whether the Minister commissioned it and the answer is "No". The Department is responsible and the Secretary General is accountable for the deployment of resources on the ground in the Department. Obviously, therefore, the Department formally did the commissioning process.
The fourth question was when the report was commissioned. The answer is that it was commissioned just over a year ago. They started to work and effectively got into their stride towards the end of the summer, in the autumn period. The intention was to complete it sometime in or about the Christmas period.
A further question asked by Deputy McHugh was whether we are doing further analysis of what is going on at present and the answer to that is "Yes". As I indicated, we are still looking at all the different elements of responding to the two value for money reports. We consider that an integrated response is necessary. We felt we needed to look at other elements of how the stations operate to see if there were options that would allow us to operate them in a way which would give us the type of value for money demonstration that we need to be able to show. At the same time, are there other ways we could do that other than simply by what the consultants had to say? That is not to say that we accept or reject the consultants at this stage - it is simply to broaden the line of options that we may be able to pursue. We have asked the same consultants to examine a couple of additional matters. They are doing that at the moment and we expect them to come back to us in the next two to three weeks. That is the timeframe for that. In the meantime, we are continuing to look at this issue and all the other issues associated with the reports themselves.
I will now pass over to Mr. Reynolds to deal with a number of matters that were raised, including the Canadian model and others.
Mr. Chris Reynolds:
The Irish Coast Guard management has great pride in what the Coast Guard service does when one looks at where we came from. I have been in the service for 16 years, as has Mr. Eugene Clonan and Mr. Gerry Smullen. We came from an organisation where we had volunteers running around in P&T suits, with no vehicles or proper boats. The UK service was rescuing our people.
We now have an efficient and effective Coast Guard. Running the Coast Guard is like running a marathon with no finish line. We are always trying to improve.
One aspect of this is changing our communication structure from an analogue regionalised structure to a digital national structure. As Mr. Mullen stated, we have completed a refit of the Dublin base, installed the integrated communications system, ICS, in Malin and are in the process of installing the kit in Valentia over the next several weeks. That installation will be completed by the end of the year. It then will have to be stood down for a short period to set up the operations room and improve living conditions before it goes back live. The equipment in storage is located at the Coast Guard stores in Blanchardstown. There is no issue about the warranty as it was extended free of charge. The final node of the communications system will be installed in Valentia shortly. By December, the actual system will be running with the lights on. That will bring us into Christmas. We would not want to shut Valentia down then as it would be unfair to bring the staff to Dublin over the Christmas and new year break. It will be shut down temporarily after Christmas to swap over the facility the same as was done in Malin.
Successive Governments have been supportive of the Coast Guard and we have been able to resource volunteers well. When I joined, we were climbing on unsafe ropes. Now we have designed a cliff rescue system that is being copied around the world. There were issues about the boats the service used. We now have harmonised the use of boats and vehicles. However, we are still moving ahead to improve the resourcing of the volunteers. The relationship with volunteers is not the same as that with a full-time staff. It is not a vertical type of relationship but a horizontal and bilateral one. We are rightfully proud that we have what I consider the best volunteer service in the world. I do not say that lightly. What our guys give in 21 day searches is incredible. I have seen photos on Facebook of volunteers getting married in their Coast Guard uniform. There are also occasions of a volunteer figure on a birthday cake or a funeral in which the volunteer is buried in uniform.
A question was raised about Valentia co-ordinating the Air India investigation. Valentia was very important in that operation and it had a major role in ship-to-shore communications. I was actually out there as on-scene co-ordinator as I happened to be arresting a Spanish fishing vessel when the plane blew up close to us. Valentia did the ship-to-shore communications for that incident but the marine rescue co-ordination centre, MRCC, was based in Shannon. While Valentia had an important part, it was not the base for the search and rescue co-ordination. That passed to Malin and Valentia between 2001 and 2002. Prior to that, they were ship-to-shore communications units which the MRCC used to relay information. They were obviously a great source of knowledge and expertise as well.
Mr. Chris Reynolds:
Another issue raised was Malin stepping in to take over Valentia coverage recently. One was an unplanned outage and the other planned. During the first outage, a telecommunications failure, Malin took over because it was fully manned and Dublin was not. The second outage, the planned one, both Dublin and Malin took half each which is the concept of the operation with the new integrated communications system. That is an example of how the investment of the new technology has been very successful. Only a few years ago, each centre could only control its own area. If there were a power failure in Valentia, there was no way of Malin or Dublin taking over because the boxes in each centre were not capable of taking the extra channels and aerials.
The problems with oil spills and the Deepwater Horizon incident in the US were raised. There were up to 250,000 people involved in that response which went on for months. Crisis management must be viewed as a generic response. Accordingly, when one is responding to either a Costa Concordia or Estonia incident, there is a generic response. The crisis will not come to one; one has to go to the crisis. Therefore, one plans, one prepares, one trains and works with the other agencies that will be involved on the day. We are not talking about having a cohort of people to clean up beaches but a process where we can respond to an incident when it happens. We will not be able to stop every incident happening but at least we can put in strategies to lessen the damage as much as possible.
We work closely with the UK coast guard and have used its aircraft for spotting oil pollution. During the Admiral Kuznetsov oil spill in 2009, we used the UK's Maritime and Coastguard Agency's spotter aircraft for assisting us while all aeronautical search and rescue in Northern Ireland is done by the helicopters based in Dublin and Sligo. We exercise with the Northern Irish coast guard every year in the joint search and rescue, JSAR, games. In the past two years, Sir Alan Massey, head of the UK's Maritime and Coastguard Agency, and Lady Sylvia Hermon, have lent their support to these games.
The Canadian model is based on shipping companies providing many resources. This happens on the other side of the Atlantic where there is much shipping. We do that to a certain extent. If there is a spill, it is the polluter who pays for the cost of the clean up.
Will Mr. Chris Reynolds clarify my point about the five month outage off the south coast? Will he also clarify my point about the co-location of the headquarters with the radio station and the international examples where this is not the case?
Do the witnesses see it as necessary here?
Mr. Maurice Mullen:
The unit in Dublin has been in that building complex for quite some time. The development and movement that took place over the last several years as a result of the requirement to deal with asbestos and other issues did not call for a change in philosophy or policy. We just moved the headquarters along with the co-ordination station into the next building.
Mr. Maurice Mullen:
One of the most important considerations in the move from Shannon back to Dublin was the availability of senior management in the event of a major incident. This is why the unit is co-located with Mr. Reynolds and his management team. It is also not far from the main emergency co-ordinating centre in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and in the event of other services, such as the Garda, being needed for a major incident it is possible to bring all the key stakeholders together to respond in a co-ordinated way. That consideration remains just as important today.
That is the issue. In the case of the Air India incident, the fact that Valentia was co-ordinated from Shannon meant there was no need for both units to be located in the same site. Does the argument that a station in Dublin is necessary stand up to scrutiny?
Mr. Maurice Mullen:
I think so. Mr. Reynolds painted an important part of the picture, which is that the entire service has developed over the past 20 years by following best practice as closely as possible. We believe best practice is best served by co-location of senior management resources with the centre. We are a relatively small country and our service is not huge. Key staff need to be available in the event of a major incident. We have moved to a position where we can best respond to an incident. The argument has been made that Dublin should be removed from the equation but I suggest the opposite applies because co-locating management and the centre provides a robustness that did not exist 20 years ago.
Mr. Maurice Mullen:
It is necessary to have a significant number of people available in a station. If one has a service with the strength of the Netherlands or similar countries, there will be a significant number of people with expertise. I wish to make two points about this. First, best practice is built around making sure we can bulk up with the best expertise available in Ireland.
Mr. Maurice Mullen:
That is international best practice. Other countries bulk up in their centres so that the type of expertise required is available in them. Second, this is exactly what the Fisher report meant in recommending the three versus two model. It argues that if we operate two centres instead of three, the second centre will have a critical mass of people. At least four desks would be operated on a daily basis. That critical mass makes the service more robust and, therefore, best for coast guard operations. That is the critical point. It is not a geography lesson - I apologise to the Senator - it is what is important to the operation in terms of the strength of resources available to deal with critical incidents.
In order to have an informed debate we should be provided with information on what other countries do. I did not get an answer on Galley Head. I ask the witnesses if they can shed some light on how the situation there was allowed to develop for so long.
Mr. Chris Reynolds:
In regard to the scale of the maritime operations centre, this is a European concept. We were audited by the European Maritime Safety Agency and visited by Frontex, which is the European border guard agency, and we explained how the centre has been co-located with the marine rescue co-ordination centre, headquarters staff and the other emergency services in the same building, including the air accident investigation unit, maritime safety policy unit and maritime shipping unit, and down the road from the national emergency co-ordination centre.
One has this enriched decision-making and resourcing within this one centre. Both Frontex and EMSA said this was the ideal model that could be found.
If the Deputy looks at what Europe is doing around the different coast guards, no two coast guards are the same. Ourselves and the UK are about the closest one can get. The UK has merged response activities into singe centres and co-located them to provide surges in staff. We tend to man our centres for day-to-day work. That is what people expect to do but there are major incidents and one has to be able to surge extra people with expertise in there. That is what is happening in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Iceland and, for example, SASEMAR and the MRCC are located in Madrid. The UK has built a €14.5 million national maritime operations centre down the road from the Coast Guard headquarters. They are not co-located but there are 100 people in the centre. That is the concept Europe is beginning to adopt. It is the concept of every coast guard model in the world. One wants to get as many coastal set activities in that room as possible. The ideal model for Ireland would have the Navy and customs at sea service in the room as well. That would be an add-on but that is where additional effectiveness and efficiencies are in that model.
On the Galley Head issue, the Deputy is correct that it was down. Galley Head is a sub-area with only one channel on it. That was down for five months. We did not have within our old analogue system in Valentia Coast Guard station the capacity to put in additional aerials We will have with the new ICS system when it goes in after Christmas. We recognise we need to fill in the gaps better in three areas in Ireland. No coast guard will ever say it has 100% coverage; one can never can get that. However, we recognise there are areas of work we have when it comes to our marine VHF coverage around the coast. The other areas are Clew Bay and north-west Donegal. We recognise there are areas we have to work on.
Mr. Chris Reynolds:
What we are saying is we are trying to produce a VHF map that will give almost 100% guaranteed coverage. No coast guard can even offer 100% guaranteed coverage. We are trying to get to a stage where if somebody is sinking and he gets one mayday call out, our chance of picking that up is the best it can be on our coverage maps.
Mr. Chris Reynolds:
As I said earlier, we are in a process improvement. The only constant thing there has ever been in the Coast Guard since I joined is change and, therefore, we are, as part of that change process, improving how we do our work. We are going from old technology helicopters to new technology helicopters. We are putting in new aerials to try as best we can to cover in the bays. We are looking at how we can be innovative when it comes to delivering a service while not increasing our staffing.
I understand there was a failure to repair a system that had worked previously. We read about ships being lost and other tragedies where no distress signal was picked up. Are there cases where efforts to send a signal were made but they were not picked up as a result of that flaw?
Mr. Chris Reynolds:
I cannot answer the second question unless the person survived and said it. We have no record of that ever being said. The only one I remember close to it was a sinking in Donegal. There were two maydays heard and then nothing and a boat was missing in the area. We picked up those two maydays after replaying them three or four times to ascertain it was two maydays. Two lives were lost in that incident but we picked it up and we responded to it. I do not know how to answer the question because the person would have to tell us that he called us and did not get through to us.
The Coast Guard was aware for five months that this piece of equipment was down and it did not deploy all its efforts to get it repaired. It was the only piece of equipment that picked up a one burst signal mayday call a week after it was repaired. If it had not been repaired, those people would have been lost. Could someone comment on that?
Always in a woman they say. I thank the witnesses for attending and, I hope, for taking on board our concerns. Valentia is a small, vibrant community in Kerry and the threats of the closure of the Coast Guard station and the local hospital are hanging over the heads of people and draining the lifeblood out of the community. We cannot put a price on that. I am always fascinated by how people from Dublin seem to think that centralising everything in Dublin is great and is the answer to everything. We fought this battle previously with the ambulance service. We had a lengthy battle with the HSE as it tried to move the ambulance station to Dublin. It is all very well to ask someone in Dublin but nobody has mentioned local knowledge. One cannot overstate local knowledge. I do not care what anyone says; it cannot be beaten. If someone in the Dublin office is asked where is Tousist or Ballinskelligs, he will reply they are in Killarney but they are a long distance from the town. Local knowledge cannot be beaten and no one can put a cost on that. It has to be taken into consideration.
I have a number of straightforward questions and I hope I will get straightforward answers. Why were Leeson Lane and Blanchardstown eliminated from consideration when Fisher Associates was commissioned to conduct the value for money report? What are the running costs of the Leeson Lane and Blanchardstown sites? Why are no costings provided for them in the report? Malin Head and Valentia Island Coast Guard stations are in State ownership. More than €800,000 has been spent on the refurbishment of Malin Head station and a similar amount will be spent on the ongoing upgrade costs for Valentia Island station.
In addition, as has been stated, Kerry County Council recently spent €150,000 of State money upgrading the access road to Valentia Island station. A lot of money has gone into something the Department is considering closing down and that has to be taken into consideration. What is the cost of the alternative to closing these stations? We estimate that it is about €5 million so we would like to hear Mr. Mullen's estimate. We had a recent meeting with the Minister during which he said he thought there were very little, if any, savings to be made so why are we going to all this trouble if that is the case? I would appreciate straight answers to those questions.
Mr. Maurice Mullen:
It is an equipment store. I must stress that we neither eliminated nor included any of the three stations because we have not decided how we should respond to the recommendations by Fisher Associates. While we are, as part of our current assessment, looking at the various costs and options for how one might operate them, they are still being worked on in fine detail. Before any decisions would be taken, they would all be put on the table. There is nothing on or off the table at this stage.
Why is it that when we are gathered together to hear the bad or good news, it is always Senators and Deputies from Kerry and Donegal who are called together? Not once did we see a Dublin Senator or Deputy called in to the room to impart his or her knowledge.
Mr. Maurice Mullen:
I am not aware of what the Senator means by that. As a Department, I have stressed that we are looking at the whole picture. When it comes to Dublin, both Mr. Reynolds and I have explained the issue in respect of the operation there. That is part of where we are at this stage.
The Senator asked why there has been significant investment in the equipment now, which is a fair question. As matters stand we need that equipment and, therefore, we need to pursue the type of flexibility that communications from it will give us. The equipment is such that the vast bulk of it is not centre-specific and can be moved. However, even if we decided that the operation of some place was to change, it does not happen overnight. The idea that we would put this off or long finger it rather than service current needs makes no sense to us. We are continuing to pursue this and if there are to be changes in the future they must be considered, planned and put into a structured change programme. Everything I am telling the committee is in the context that no decisions have been taken at this stage. In respect of the very engagement about which Deputy McHugh asked and the question of whether we were looking at additional work at this stage, I can say that we are doing so because we are examining the maximum array of opportunities or ways in which we could approach this and following that, where we can move forward.
Mr. Reynolds picked up a very important point. We are still very stretched with regard to resources and we must take the best decisions and continue to operate as best we can with the available resources in the country. We are no different from any other public service body in that we are not in a position to put up our hand and ask to man the whole system the way we would all love to.
We spoke about that this morning where it was said that there is a facility whereby for emergency services, the moratorium can be lifted. That is at the Minister's discretion. Has the Department submitted a request to the Minister to have the extra staff provided? I speak about Valentia Island because that is the one I know best. I will not speak about Malin Head as those involved there will speak for themselves and I am not sure about the staffing there. Has the Department submitted a specific request to the Minister to lift the moratorium to employ staff at Valentia Island?
Mr. Maurice Mullen:
We have not specifically done that because we must be able to persuade the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in respect of the case and be able to demonstrate that we have gone through every possibility and show that what we say stands up. That is why the detailed analysis is taking place. Before it goes to the Minister and any decisions are made, all the different elements of it have to be set out. They include the different costs and approaches that are possible and they must be set out for the Minister and pass muster with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. Only it can sanction at this stage the additional posts on the basis that where there is an emergency post, it can identify it. The fact that we are holding these types of review confirms that we are looking to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform for various posts to be filled. That is why these are part of the process.
We are now caught in a catch-22 scenario because when the Minister looks at it, he will look at the staffing issue and see that they do not have the staff there. If he had at least submitted the request for the extra staff, we would know where we stand in respect of staff in Valentia Island.
Mr. Maurice Mullen:
What the Minister has asked us to do is very clear and is in keeping with what is happening across the board in respect of public service policies. We must be able to construct the cases that will stand up for scrutiny by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform because it will not accept any stepping aside from the embargo at this stage other than where processes we are now going through have been pursued and the case can be shown to stand up.
There were a number of elements in the Fisher Associates report. Much of it is very challenging to us, for example, its preference in respect of our operations. It knows we live in a different type of world - a real world - but it points out that we have to look at what it is recommending. It was challenging us in that way because it knows that unless we can answer the hard questions, we will not be able to meet the requirements of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. That is across the board in the public service. We are all pursuing matters to get the best possible service.
We know there are difficulties in respect of local issues and knowledge and that all those factors must come into the equation. I cannot answer the question of how they should come in at this stage because we are still setting up the building blocks.
Mr. Maurice Mullen:
We have a lot of information about how one develops certain stations if one has to enhance the facilities. We know those costs and have quite a lot of information about that side. We have not put all aspects together to present to the Minister and the committee because we are still working on it and it is a work in progress. We know all those things must be on the table before decisions are made and that is the value of this meeting. It is very helpful in that way.
It is a shame and scandal that the issue is on the agenda again. What happened in the past was that the permanent government, as we shall call it, tried this and failed. It went through every avenue it possibly could in the past to achieve what it wanted, namely, to centralise everything in Dublin and it failed. It is coming at it again in a different way. If the value for money review produced by Fisher Associates was called a value for saving lives review, Valentia Island would certainly come top of the class.
I do not think that matters to the witnesses at the end of the day. This should not have anything to do with saving money but rather it should be about saving lives. The system is working perfectly well now but there is an agenda, and that is blatantly obvious from every word of the witnesses in giving evidence. Every word seems to indicate that the preference is to centralise operations, and it does not matter what happens in Malin, Valentia or both as long as everything is anchored in Dublin.
The witnesses met a willing Minister in the commissioning of the report, and it has been indicated that the equipment is being stored in his own constituency. His view seems to be that having one station in Dublin with a substation in his own constituency will serve the entire country and approximately 7,500 km of coastline. The idea seems to be that it is okay to centralise this in Dublin but where is the common sense in what is being proposed? It was proposed before and the process failed. It seems there is an idea that by coming at this in a different way, like a dog with a bone, it will eventually succeed.
I want some clear answers on issues. Is this about saving money and is the idea that by closing one or two existing stations, even one cent will be saved? If the Fisher Associates report was so ill-advised, or should I say incompetent, so as to deserve all the criticism heaped upon it, why was the report not discarded after the first draft? Why was the Minister allowed to speak to the media about this report and its findings, even if the witnesses had no confidence in it?
The Taoiseach referred to the report in correspondence after representations were made to him. It is disgraceful to think that once again, senior politicians were misled with false information. Was it the case that the Fisher Associates report was a great job but restricted by the fact that Dublin would not be included in the rationalisation? Was it a pale shadow of the first draft, with the opinions of the interested parties toned down or not included at all in some instances and with the criticism of management and structure taken out? Is it correct that the Irish Coast Guard needed a so-called independent report to carry out the actions, using and abusing the Fisher Associates report to this end? Did it tailor the report until it got the message out that it wanted in the first instance? Was that the object of the exercise?
With regard to the timeframe, how long will the matter be fudged? Will it be until the timing is right and the political will exists to carry out the actions that the permanent government wants introduced? We should be clear about the permanent government. There are certain people in certain positions who have been in place for the past ten years. They have a clear agenda and it is certainly not in the best interests of the people of this nation. There are personal and insular reasons for centralising this process in Dublin.
Valentia handles two thirds of all the emergency calls in this country and one can consider the countless lives that have been saved by the people there. They have been involved in major rescue operations up and down the country and far out to sea. They have provided an excellent service. It is dreadful to think that people in the Department and in high-ranking positions will totally disregard the excellent work done in both Malin and Valentia. People have given their careers in building an excellent service.
I respect what Senator Moloney said about the importance of the station to Valentia Island. I will not restate that as I know the argument will fall on deaf ears. The witnesses have their minds made up. We were told a while ago about the finishing line but the problem is that it is being constantly moved. Despite arguments being put forward as to why Valentia should not close, the opponents only had to take their beating for a while before returning to try to close it again. I hope they fail again on this occasion but they will return to try again. The centralisation agenda is being pushed by certain individuals in high-ranking positions. They will remain when the current Government and Minister are gone. Change in itself is not always a good thing. Accidents will befall people on the oceans and seas and those people will not be best served by what is being attempted today.
There is a money issue. If it is true that this is a value-for-money review and not an attempt to centralise procedures, where is the saving? How much money will be saved if the intentions are achieved? I hope the witnesses take on board what they hear today and the Minister will not be carried along by the proposals. Anybody with knowledge of the issue can see that the weakest link is in Dublin but how many of the witnesses would agree with that? If they could say something bad about Malin or Valentia, they would prefer that. Unfortunately for them, that is not possible and we can stand over their track record and ability to save lives. We can stand over the expertise. It is a crying shame that the work and expertise is not valued by senior people in the Department. I will finish with that for the time being.
I pay tribute to the volunteers in the Irish Coast Guard, as well as those working on the front line in Malin, Valentia and Dublin. The Department hired the consultancy firm to prepare the report and believed it to be competent. Many members have spoken on the report.
I refer to the draft and what it stated about senior management. Was the assistant secretary of the Department aware of how parts were taken from the first draft, with the final draft presented to the Minister excluding those comments? The final draft only has one paragraph, which has been neutered, in reference to senior management. The first draft of the report was not presented to the Minister. It stated:
[There is a] very strong perception that the organisation lacks a sense of strategic direction and purpose. A common observation among both external and internal stakeholders is that this apparent lack of direction was due in part to the directors' time commitments to external issues other than to the State.
It also states:
There is a sense at middle management level that the organisation lacks strategic direction. In the unlikely event, one hopes, of a major maritime emergency, a somewhat torrid relationship between the Irish Coast Guard and the Marine Survey Office is a significant cause of concern since this might impact on successful resolution of the incident.
There were further concerns that the Irish Coast Guard does not appear to have a clearly defined role and if it does, it does not stick to it. The report indicated that the Irish Coast Guard is perceived as being all things to all men.
On page 34 of the report, it is stated:
Thus while Irish Coast Guard provides a well regarded search and rescue, Irish Coast Guard as a whole is not regarded as well managed. With better management many people consider it could prove and provide more output and, with the same resources, improve efficiencies.
It is stated on page 45:
The relationship between the director of the Irish Coast Guard Service and the Marine Survey Office which are clearly key components of an end to end maritime safety borders on the destructive. At a personnel level it is not acceptable to employ senior managers who are unable to co-operate closely. At a corporate level more integration of the Irish Coast Guard and the Marine Survey Office would deliver a more efficient end to end maritime service.
These are some of the quotations from the first draft of 60 pages. There was a 19 page reply to the consultants, which used the most bizarre terminology. Some of the comments were like Facebook, coffee and water cooler chatter. Was the assistant secretary aware that all those comments were deleted from the first draft that was done by the consultants, and that this was the version that was given to the Minister?
The first draft outlined three options - three centres, two centres and one centre - and it gave the costs and benefits of all those without coming down on the side of any one. The final draft that went to the Minister, with all the comments about senior management from the first draft deleted after a 19 page response by senior management, recommends not retaining the three centre model. I cannot see that recommendation in the original draft that was manipulated subsequently by senior management.
It is bad enough that the Minister gets a report that is doctored by senior management, but it is more disturbing when it comes down to lies. Colleagues have outlined the reports that have been put forward to try to close Malin Head and Valentia Coast Guard stations. There was the PricewaterhouseCoopers report in 1998. The Deloitte & Touche report in 2002 went to the then Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Dermot Ahern, who opted to retain Malin Head and Valentia Coast Guard stations. The Fearon report, which was scrutinised in this committee room in 2008, was an attempt to close Malin Head and Valentia Coast Guard stations. That report was entirely discredited inside this committee room. Lie after lie was included in a document that was given to a Minister. This report before us is another attempt by senior management to do the same again.
Even though the then Minister with responsibility in the area ordered that the equipment be purchased and installed in Malin Head and Valentia Coast Guard stations, it still has not been installed by 2012. There was another report in 2010 by Ahern & Associates that tried to delay the installation of the equipment. The choice was given to staff of either having the buildings upgraded or the equipment installed. Mr.Chris Reynolds sent an e-mail to all staff seeking their views on upgrading the building or installing new equipment. Although all staff opted to install the equipment, it is still sitting in Blanchardstown. The Fearon report of 2007 stated clearly that the equipment in Malin Head and Valentia Coast Guard stations was subject to catastrophic failure at any moment. Motorola had issued a death certificate on the equipment prior to 2007 and the officers were ordered by a Minister - a democratically elected Member of Parliament - to install the new equipment as a matter of urgency. Where is that equipment today? It is sitting in Blanchardstown while equipment that is liable to catastrophic failure is in Malin Head and Valentia Coast Guard stations.
The Fisher Associates report talks about the importance of Malin Head and Valentia Coast Guard stations to saving the lives of Spanish fisherman off our coast. Malin Head and Valentia are the only coast guard stations in Ireland, England. Scotland and Wales in which all the staff can speak Spanish to the fishermen in distress. So important is this ability that the Royal Air Force calls on Valentia time and again to co-ordinate with Spanish fishermen in distress. Mr. Reynolds stated in his rebuttal that it is maritime law for them to have a seaman on board who can speak English. That is a lot of good to a Spanish trawler that is 200 miles off Fastnet and does not have an English speaker on board. Would we quote him chapter and verse and say we do not have Spanish speakers here? Mr. Reynolds states in his rebuttal that this does not have currency. I believe that lives count. The Spanish fishermen are deserving of being saved and the fact we have this unique facility in Valentia that can co-ordinate rescues between our Coast Guard service, helicopters, the RAF helicopter and those Spanish trawlers in distress is very important because lives depend on it.
What I cannot understand is that we are four years on and the equipment is still sitting in boxes in Blanchardstown. It is impossible to understand how a person who is the head of a coast guard service that is dedicated to saving lives and who knows the existing equipment in Valentia and Malin Head Coast Guard stations is subject to such catastrophic failure has not authorised the installation of the replacement equipment. I do not think Mr. Chris Reynolds is fit to hold the office of director of the Irish Coast Guard, considering that, hourly, he is putting lives at risk.
Was Mr. Mullen aware of the original draft of the Fisher Associates report with all the criticisms of senior management? Did Mr. Mullen ask that these be removed and that the final report we have by a consultant hired by the Department be handed to the Minister?
It is a shame we are having this discussion again four years after a decision was taken. It is outrageous that at a time of economic difficulties in the country, money is being spent on reports to make decisions that people would appear to want.
I have a number of questions, some of which follow on from Senator Daly's questions. Regarding the reports undertaken by the Department and given the approval of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, why were two reports commissioned? Why would one not suffice? If there was a need for a value for money review and if the reports were genuine in seeking more value for money, why was there a need for two separate reports, one on the Irish Cost Guard service and one on the Marine Survey Office, given that both are under the auspices of the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport?
Senator Daly referred to the draft report which, it appears, was complete and ready for publication last November. It is like the book that was the subject of a recent High Court challenge and which was taken off the shelves just before it went on sale because it did not suit someone. It appears that what was contained in the report was ready last November. If the Department had confidence in the consultants and in their findings and if they were given the freedom of expression and the independence to carry out their report, why was it not published last November? Why was there a need to respond to certain aspects of the report, as outlined by Senator Daly?
The draft report highlighted serious shortcomings in respect of the relationship between the Irish Coast Guard and the Marine Survey Office. Changes were made in the final report. Perhaps that requires an investigation. Page 21 of the report clearly outlines that it is the expressed opinion that there seems to be only sporadic co-operation between the Irish Coast Guard and the Marine Survey Office. Why is that the case? Is there an issue at senior management level between both organisations? Is there a lack of co-operation between staff on the ground? Are there union issues? We deserve to know for the following reason. The final Fisher Associates report outlined that in the event of a major shipping casualty within Irish waters, without the co-operation of the Marine Survey Office it would be difficult to deal with such an emergency. What appears to be happening is that the Irish Coast Guard is employing the services of two UK-based companies for assistance, one of which, Oil Spill Response Limited, is being paid an annual retainer - I would like to know at what cost - and the second, London Offshore Consultants Limited, which is deployed on an agreed call-out rate. The report also highlights that this arrangement was activated during a recent incident where the resources of London Offshore Consultants Limited were required but it did not respond for at least 24 hours after the event. Is that an appropriate relationship? Is it an acceptable level of cover?
The final Fisher Associates report outlines that similar resources are available locally from the Marine Survey Office. Why are those services not being used? Why is the taxpayer being burdened for additional cost while there appears to be a lack of co-operation between two State agencies within the same Department? That is an issue on which we may argue but it is one that is clear to me from reading the report.
In regard to the report, who was consulted? I assume the mountain rescue teams, the Killybegs Fishermen's Organisation, the Federation of Irish Fishermen, and fishermen at sea were consulted, and if not, why? A number of suggestions were made by the ordinary staff working in the Irish Coast Guard which were taken into consideration in the first Fisher Associates report but excluded from the Fisher Associates second report. Why? One of the suggestions was on staffing arrangements, as mentioned by Senator Marie Moloney, in respect of the moratorium on recruitment. The staffing submission made in respect of the first Fisher Associates report actually provided a solution. The second Fisher Associates report indicated that for a two centre operation to be viable the number of operational staff required would be 41 but the Deloitte & Touche report indicated 42 staff. The agreed level for operational staff at the three centres is 46. This has been reduced further to 44 staff with the reduction of the 12 hour shift at Malin and Valentia. The level could be reduced further to 42, according to the staff employed within Irish Coast Guard, if the Dublin operation on Leeson Lane was to introduce a 12 hour shift system. International comparisons were given. As I understand it, the international norm for coast guard services within all European Union states is a 12 hour shift system. Why is Dublin not operating on a 12 hour shift system? If it was to operate a 12 hour shift system the moratorium could not be used as an excuse for closing one of the centres.
The British House of Commons Select Committee on Transport recently undertook an evaluation of coast guard stations. Mr. Chris Reynolds outlined that our model is similar to the UK model. If that is the case, its select committee highlighted the fact that closing down coast guard stations in the UK led to an increase in the loss of life at sea. Are we going to increase the loss of life at sea simply because we are trying to save a few euro by closing one of the stations? Has that issue been considered?
I was taken aback by the figures presented in respect of activity levels at Valentia, Malin Head and Dublin. One cannot really make comparisons. In regard to the 1,615 call-outs in Dublin which were quoted, how many were single point of contact call-outs? In other words, the UK coast guard would have been placing through a call and those calls would be recorded as mayday calls or whatever into Dublin but would have been referred on to Valentia or Malin Head and not necessarily referred to on their log book but referred on for the purposes of work activity. I am not an expert on transportation, navigation or maritime affairs but would not "persons saved", which is dealt with in page 16 of the final report, be the best comparative argument to use rather than figures recording the number of calls? In 2010 in Valentia, 51 lives were saved as a result of the work of the Valentia Coast Guard and 39 bodies recovered; 29 lives were saved as a result of the work of the Malin Head Coast Guard while the number of lives saved in Dublin was 25. It is clear from the activity at Valentia and Malin that while the number of calls may not be high in terms of the overall number of calls to the station, there may be a reason for that in terms of the single point of contact. However, the calls coming to Valentia and Malin appear to be more serious as there is more fishing at sea activity and more severe distress in those areas whereas there are more leisure activity calls into the eastern seaboard Dublin base. As a result, 80 lives were saved in 2010 by Valentia and Malin stations. One cannot put a cost on that and one of those stations cannot be closed if it is saving lives, as outlined by the British House of Commons select committee report.
The final issue to which I wish to refer is the removal of the cliff climbing gear which has been recommended by management, the Irish Coast Guard and the report. What savings are to be made? What is the alternative to removing the cliff climbing gear? It would appear the alternative may be to bring in helicopters at €3,500 per hour.
In my constituency in Killybegs, if the Irish Coast Guard is serious about saving money and cutting down in capital investment, why is it building a new €1.7 million structure on the new pier in Killybegs where there is no launching pad adjacent to the new facility while the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine facilities in the centre of the old pier in Killybegs remain empty? I understand that the facilities owned by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine could be altered to accommodate the Irish Coast Guard in Killybegs without having to spend €1.7 million. They could be reconstructed or upgraded to meet that demand. If we are discussing value for money, we should examine everything on the table.
My colleague, Deputy McConalogue, asked a question earlier about whether, if we closed a station at Valentia or Malin Head, the alternative was to build a new structure somewhere in Dublin, in Blanchardstown or somewhere else. A high capital investment would be associated with that. Has any cost-benefit analysis been carried out by the Department or Irish Coast Guard in respect of current facilities and any future facilities, were the Department to take the decision to close the centre at either Valentia or Malin Head?
That is all the members for now and we will get responses to the three speakers. I call on members to refrain from personalising remarks with regard to the witnesses, if possible. It is a matter of procedure in the meeting.
Mr. Maurice Mullen:
Having listened to the various comments - I will go through each of them - I wish to make it clear that I have confidence in the director of the Coast Guard and in the chief surveyor, who is the head of the Marine Survey Office. They are two hard-working and admirable officers. I want to make that very clear. Much of what has been said about them at the meeting does not represent the sequence of events that took place in the recent past. I want to make that clear from the outset.
I will go through the issues sequentially but there is some overlap and I can pull them together. I wish to make two quick points regarding Deputy Healy-Rae's comments before I go into the detail. At no stage was the equipment stored in the Minister's constituency and used in that way. It was placed in Blanchardstown per se because that is one of our main store areas and it was for no other reason. It has been there since the Minister was appointed.
The Minister has not indicated a preference at this stage. I want to make that clear. Reference was made to a suggestion that somehow or other the Minister has a specific view. The Department engaged in this process to make a case to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and as part of the overall development under the Croke Park agreement. The Minister has not been involved in any part of the process with regard to what model might or might not be used.
Mr. Maurice Mullen:
The Minister has not decided on any particular form or model at this stage. He has made that clear to us. Certainly, he has not indicated any preference to those of us working on the situation. That is clear.
A question was put about the value for money exercise and whether it is simply about saving money. In the replies to parliamentary questions and in responses from the Department generally, the issue for us is best value for money in the first instance. The Minister has made it clear that he is not setting out to seek to save money in this process. Given that money is tight - by money I mean resources - the exercise is to try to use the money we have to get the best value. If we can do something to help us to achieve additional things we are not doing, that is the type of desired output. The objective is not to start from a point of view of simply trying to save money.
A series of points were made by Senator Ó Domhnaill and Deputy Healy-Rae in respect of the first part and the second part of the draft and I wish to explain that because it is significant in respect of the role senior management has played. Fisher Associates presented their first draft, as they termed it, to us. They did not see that this draft was for publication; it was a first draft. In discussions, they used the terminology of a "challenge draft". They presented views from across the board and from the various stakeholders but one key group from which they wanted a response to that draft was senior management. They used this as a challenge draft. That was their preferred process. We had stood back up to that point. This is a value for money process and an independent company was hired. It was not a case of them sitting there or of us holding their hands. There was no element of that. They were to consult and we indicated all the potential stakeholders. We indicated the longest list we could and we gave it to them and told them that it was theirs. They then consulted under their terms in respect of who they believed would give them the most information. We did not dictate in any fashion or form who should or should not be consulted. We included all stakeholders and any group we could think of which had even a marginal interest. We identified these and left it with them.
Essentially, when the consultants came back, they presented a one-sided view. They put it to us what many of the stakeholders were saying and they wanted management's perspective and a response. Their concern was to ensure that the subsequent iteration of the report would have two sides of the coin and that the process of presenting the second iteration of the report would be robust. In the course of the second iteration, they challenged management's responses.
I am keen to outline some points that arose during that process. Several negative views were expressed about senior management. Different perspectives were offered by various stakeholders who presented different views. Different stakeholders would have different agendas in terms of expressing those views. It was then up to senior management to rebut those observations, which it did.
I followed the process from the outset and I was familiar with the initial material and the final material. It is clear to me from examining the process that many of the arguments presented were part of a wide range of agenda items, many of which dealt with human resources issues and concerns and other matters. These were the genesis of many of the negative comments towards management and they were not altogether relevant to value for money or other operational issues. At the same time as part of the openness of the process I was concerned that the senior management would directly rebut these views with officials since they were responsible for doing this value for money report. Of course it did so in written form and in intensive face-to-face exchanges. A considerable part of the engagement at that stage was to do with the fine detail of what views were suggested, what options had been suggested, where value for money existed and what things were happening which could be changed, and so on.
This fine digging down into the process led to the second draft. The final report was very clearly the position arrived at by Fisher Associates following on from this process. They took away what the different parties had to say and, after careful examination, presented what they regarded as the best recommendations. For example, they stuck with their view that there should be two rather than three stations. Obviously, in the course of the discussions, management put the view that there was huge opposition locally to three stations. The consultants' position was that they were putting forward their recommendations, which could be accepted or not accepted. That is the form in which these value for money reports are given. Consultants give their best independent assessment, but they are not infallible. That is why we are obliged to give careful consideration to their recommendations before deciding whether to accept them.
I wish to make clear that there was not at any stage, as has been suggested here, any form of manipulation, any form of rewriting or any form of reconstructing in any matter associated with this review. The first draft, as I have explained, reflected the views and positions the consultants garnered from their consultation with stakeholders, which did not include senior management. The second draft then took on board what I accept was quite a robust exchange with management arising from the initial draft. I would expect senior management to have that type of exchange in such cases.
At no stage during this process was anyone of the view that there should be a centralisation agenda. That remains the case. This notion that there is something bad about-----
Members should note that in accordance with this morning's agreed ruling, each speaker is to have two minutes to ask questions followed by a brief response and, where necessary, the questioner will be given an additional minute to ask a supplementary question. I have allowed great leeway on this.
Mr. Maurice Mullen:
I am simply making the point that Fisher Associates prepared the final draft based on what management had to say. What we have now is the consultants' considered view at this stage in the process. I agree that it is right and proper that everyone should see all of the papers on the table. The suggestion that certain documents - the first or second draft - are somehow being withheld is not appropriate.
In fact, Mr. Mullen said at the beginning of this discussion that a particular document or documents were not to be seen. He will see that when he reads the transcript of proceedings. He said it was not to be seen.
Mr. Maurice Mullen:
What I said was that Fisher Associates did not expect that their document would go out. For my part, my intention was that anything that was put on the table would be going everywhere throughout the whole process. That was fully accepted by Fisher Associates and it is what happened. That is the situation.
Mr. Maurice Mullen:
The final report was presented by Fisher Associates as what they regarded as the full position. It is the document that is on the table today. The consultants recognised that different stakeholders presented different views and agendas and they looked carefully into each of the issues raised. Much of the difference between the two documents is accounted for when one considers the iterative process that was followed. In the initial stages many of the stakeholders expressed negative views. Fisher Associates realised, however, that some had a far from even moderate understanding of the different relationships that must exist between a regulatory service, in this case the Marine Survey Office and the Coast Guard, and other stakeholders in a service. There are certain walls that must be maintained but which were crossed over in many instances, causing them to draw conclusions which were not appropriate. All I can say is that Fisher Associates took the opportunity to examine all of these different issues and ultimately to come to their informed conclusion.
The options were expanded by the consultants to include their perspective on what they were told. We ourselves are widening that process further, simply because there is no simple answer to all of these issues. We recognise that there are difficulties in finding ways of moving forward. As such, we have engaged to look at different ways of working and we have not yet decided what the options will be. Our position is indicative of the complexity of finding a solution within very limited resources while at the same time seeking to capture issues that are important and give weight to them, such as local expertise and so on. That is why this process is still under play and why, rather than options being written off, more options have, in fact, come onto the table.
I regret the use of terms like "lie after lie" in our discussion today. In the case of the reference to "catastrophic failure" in regard to events in 2008, there has been an attempt to convey that this somehow misrepresented the whole game. In fact, all that is required for clarity is a simple understanding as to why certain actions were taken in 2008, when there was the potential for a catastrophic failure on equipment in Dublin. There is no question about that and, as I indicated earlier, we had to renew the Dublin equipment immediately. However, this upgrading at Dublin meant that two previously unavailable equipment spares were now available, which meant we could then continue operating Malin and Valentia with greater safety. Action was taken purely to deal with an imminent danger. We were already stretched using old equipment in three centres. As soon as we fitted out Dublin with the new equipment, we had working spares that could be used in the event of anything untoward happening in Malin or Valentia while they were awaiting upgrade.
If something happened in the mid-west, Mr. Mullen is talking about having a spare in Dublin. This is about the catastrophic failure of the equipment in Valentia station and Mr. Mullen is talking about having spares on hand.
Mr. Maurice Mullen:
I did not say that. I said we then had equipment that would act as valuable operating spares in the event that the equipment in Malin and Valentia was down before we had an opportunity to upgrade them. The risk changed at that stage. That is my only point. The reason I am bringing this back in at this stage is that it has been presented in some other fashion that there was a major change. The circumstances changed there which allowed us to operate in a safer way.
Mr. Mullen knows that at the time the Valentia station covered an area that the Dublin centre could not cover. If the Valentia station suffered a catastrophic failure, the possibility of which was stated in the 2008 Fearon report, having a spare would not be much good if a machine broke down.
Mr. Maurice Mullen:
Dublin could also come in there. Once the Dublin centre was upgraded, a number of things happened. Our scenario changed immediately. First, we had spare old equipment in the event that either one of the other two stations had a difficulty and, second, Dublin was upgraded with the equipment.
A failure means the entire communication equipment breaks down and no spare can fix that, according to Motorola. Once the equipment breaks down and does not function, it is a catastrophic failure and Dublin in mid-rescue would not make a difference. Having a spare would make no difference either.
Which part of catastrophic failure does Mr. Mullen not understand? He admitted that catastrophic failure means that spares make no difference and he is attempting to say that if they had spares, it would have solved the problem. He had allowed Malin and Valentia for the last four years to have equipment that is subject to catastrophic failure and he is trying to pretend here that having a few spares would make-----
Mr. Maurice Mullen:
I am not. The problem is if one of the stations were to have gone down and there were no spares, there would have been no back-up and no capacity to pick up that immediately. By having spares available as a result of the Dublin upgrade, we would have been able to bring back up one or other of the stations had one or other of them been down.
It has not changed. If Motorola said this equipment was liable to catastrophic failure at any moment and it issued a death certificate in respect of it to Mr. Mullen's Department, is Mr. Mullen telling me that having a few spares in a box in Dublin or in Valentia would make any difference?
Could a catastrophic failure of the equipment in Valentia occur, the possibility of which was stated in a report to the Minister for Transport in 2007, and which was the reason Malin and Valentia stations were told there was a need to shut them down? The Department told us four years ago that the equipment in the stations in Malin, Valentia and Dublin was subject to catastrophic failure at any moment. Motorola had issued a death certificate on the equipment. It was not in respect of a card or a bit of the equipment but on the entire equipment. Is Mr. Smullen saying that if the Department had a few spares, Motorola had it wrong and that a catastrophic failure would not occur?
Mr. Maurice Mullen:
It is very clear in this instance that for as long as we have spares, even when individual cards have to be swapped out, we will not be in a position where we face a catastrophic failure. That was not the case earlier as we were able to use the spares in Dublin centre. The situation has already moved on because the development of the Dublin centre has resulted in a new type of equipment being put in place and, shortly, new equipment will be in place in the last of the three developments.
The problem is that for four years the Department was willing to have equipment in the Malin and Valentia stations that was subject to catastrophic failure and it was relying on spares. I note the engineer is wincing a little but the Department told us that equipment could fail at any moment, Motorola issued a death certificate in respect of it and for four years the Department allowed equipment to lie in Blanchardstown.
Mr. Maurice Mullen:
A phased programme of development needed to come into play. Prior to the engagement of that programme we were in a very difficult position, as was explained. Once the programme moved forward on the phased basis, our situation improved immeasurably, as I set out, and soon that whole programme will be finished. I have no doubt that at some stage in the not too distant future, there will be the next phase of it. Similarly, we have proposals for ongoing development of equipment, communications and IT generally, and that is part of the parcel of day-to-day operations.
Senator Ó Domhnaill asked a number of questions, one of which was why money was spent on two reports rather than one. At the time we commissioned them, there was the possibility that responsibility for the Coast Guard service would be moved to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and there would have been two governing Departments when the reports might have to be addressed and implemented. However, we lined up the terms of references fully and the work was undertaken as if there was a single one in order that we would get the maximum benefit from them.
Senator Ó Domhnaill raised the issue of the relationship between the Marine Survey Office, MSO, and the Coast Guard. I have expressed to the Senator that there is a significant regulatory role and differences between one side and the other. To be clear, some of the views expressed by the stakeholders to the effect there was a lack of co-operation were simply patently untrue. There is a huge level of day-to-day co-operation that goes on between the Coast Guard, the Marine Survey Office and all other parts of the Department, as well as between the Coast Guard and other agencies of the State outside the Department, such were there to be a significant incident to be addressed, everyone undoubtedly would be pulling on the same line.
Why then have Oil Spill Response Limited of the United Kingdom and London Offshore Consultants Limited been drafted in to do work the Marine Survey Office could do? What fee are the aforementioned companies being paid to do that work?
Mr. Chris Reynolds:
Oil Spill Response Limited, OSR, does not provide a service the MSO could provide. It provides what we call a tier three level response for us. What we expect from the national pollution response capacity is that harbours and local authorities have a tier one level capacity to enable them to respond to a spill up to a certain size. In the case of a bigger spill than that, the Coast Guard will step in and this is the reason for our stockpiles in Blanchardstown, Killybegs and Castletownbere. One point about Killybegs is that we are not building a Coast Guard station but are building a Coast Guard station and a pollution response stockpile, which is the reason it is a significantly bigger building. These are the three national tier two locations. OSR gives us the capacity for a tier three level response, that is, in the case of an even bigger spill, it will come in with experts, additional equipment, additional pumps and booms, as well as with a Hercules aircraft that is capable of spraying and of airlifting stores into Ireland very quickly. This is the reason we deal with OSR. We have a contract with it which is quite innovative, in that not many countries have a contract as, in the main, oil companies have such contracts. However, it has given us access to this response capacity, which is really good for Ireland. We are doing a very good thing in this regard. The London Offshore Consultants Limited is not paid a retainer. While it conducted a survey for us in 2010, it is just comprised of people we know. If necessary, we can give the company a call and its people can give us some advice. Consequently, there is no retainer issue with that company.
Is the report wrong where it states, on page 21, that alternative or similar resources are available here locally? The report suggests the Marine Survey Office could provide similar services to those provided by both the aforementioned organisations.
I apologise for the delay and belatedly call on Mr. John Dallat, MLA, to explain the SDLP's position on the Malin Head station. I apologise again to Mr. Dallat and his colleagues for the delays, all of which probably were unavoidable.
Mr. John Dallat, MLA:
There is no need to apologise as we regard it as a privilege to be present, not to have a debate about the spare parts but to focus on the holistic view we have of the Irish Coast Guard, particularly at Malin Head. My presence here as a Northern Ireland Assembly member is endorsed by our entire Assembly group and is supported by our 84 councillors. In addition, I am accompanied by two councillors who represent the most beautiful part of our coastline. I have served in public life for more than 30 years and this also is an opportunity for me to pay tribute to the Irish Coast Guard at Malin Head. In the past, this usually just meant a trip up to the Coast Guard station with a box of chocolates or something but it is important to have placed on the record of the Oireachtas that our respect and admiration for the Coast Guard has no limits.
Ms Orla Beattie is a member of Limavady Borough Council and was elected to represent that part of the coastline from Magilligan up to Lough Foyle. Ms Maura Hickey is the deputy mayor of Coleraine and has the privilege and honour of representing Portrush, Portstewart, Portballintrae, Castlerock and Downhill. Undoubtedly, many members will have heard mention of those seaside towns when the Coast Guard from Malin Head was instrumental in co-ordinating the saving of hundreds of lives over the years. In each case, the Coast Guard worked with the local coast guard in the North, as well as with the RNLI and the other voluntary organisations. Consequently, when people talk about centralisation, I believe anything I wish to cover will be wiped out by centralisation.
Much earlier, reference was made to the training programmes. When mayor of Coleraine, I had the privilege of attending one of the aforementioned training programmes at the University of Ulster and it was second to none. Each year, 100,000 people attend an air show in Portrush and pride of place goes to the Irish Coast Guard. While it always is dangerous to claim one speaks for everyone, on this occasion, I can make an exception. I have not a shadow of doubt but that everyone from the area and from the North will support fully my presence here today to make a bid for the retention of the Coast Guard station at Malin Head.
While we stated we would come to talk about the facts, it is difficult not to be nostalgic. Coast Guard personnel have been there since partition and some would say long beforehand. Through the darkest days of the Troubles, Coast Guard personnel kept open those lines of communication in the North. They played a major role in helping along the politicians to get to the current position. I acknowledge that consultants have no space in their reports for such things but they are important. When one has a cross-Border body that is working perfectly, it would be a shame to do anything to destroy it.
When the Good Friday Agreement was put together, cross-Border activity relating to the sea, the rivers and so on was recognised as being fundamental, which is the reason Waterways Ireland came into being. I note that during the suspension of Stormont and so on, that body carried out incredible work on the River Bann. At some point in the future, when the Ulster Canal is reopened, the River Bann will undoubtedly become the second Shannon of Ireland. The other cross-Border body is Tourism Ireland, which is charged with the responsibility of selling the coastline and rivers to the international world. The point I make is these are two cross-Border bodies which were brought into existence to promote some kind of future that presents us as a normal society. However, the one body that was working perfectly and seamlessly is under debate.
This is the second time that I have met Deputy McHugh, the first being at Malin Head four years ago, and I thought this argument was over. In the meantime, there has been an argument about Belfast Coastguard and I note that, united, we won that argument. God grant that this one will be the same. While I will not get into the environmental issues, I remind members that Malin Head is on the north Atlantic route. It faces out onto one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world and I would not like to think that in the future, our efforts to co-ordinate pollution control and so on would be centralised elsewhere. There must be a major role for Malin Head. I apologise if I have offended people from Valentia. I acknowledge they have very good arguments to which I have listened.
Mr. John Dallat, MLA:
Allow me to develop the arguments a little further. Unless one gets up on the balcony to look down on such matters, mistakes will be made. One success of the peace process in the North was the establishment of the ferry service between Greencastle and Magilligan.
Every time that ferry crosses the busy River Foyle, it has to communicate with Malin Head. Collectively, we bring people from Inishowen into the North and vice versa. We are filling empty beds in hotels and guesthouses. Apart from the hundreds of people who owe their lives to the Coast Guard personnel, there is a question of competence as well. If one takes that away, one has a problem.
We have come here today to plead as fellow citizens of this island for something that has served the citizens of Ireland in the most incredible way. It is a proud part of Irish history. In my 30 odd years in public life I never thought we would get to the stage where we would be debating its future. I am encouraged by the standard of the debate here today, with its cut and thrust. I hope the contributions will not be missed. I am honoured to be here from the North.
I wish to introduce my two colleagues. Alderman Maura Hickey will tell the joint committee something of her experiences as a local councillor. She is grateful to the Coast Guard for things that happened recently.
Alderman Maura Hickey:
I thank the joint committee for giving me this opportunity. I will follow on from what Mr. Dallat has said. I am delighted to be here to support the Coast Guard. I represent an area where the population quadruples during the summer season. All too often, inexperience or high spirits have led to disaster and grief. More often, however, there have been happy endings where tragedy has been avoided.
The most recent incident was just a few weeks ago when a couple became stranded in a boat on a reef at the bar mouth, at the entrance to the River Bann. By the grace of God, the Coast Guard at Malin Head picked up a distress signal, alerted the Irish Coast Guard helicopter and the couple were plucked from those dangerous waters. This is a story without grief but it could have ended with much more serious consequences without the alertness and quick thinking of the Malin Head Coast Guard personnel who know the area, and the other organisations needed to co-ordinate such a rescue.
This is only one account but I hope it helps to underline the absolute need for the Coast Guard personnel to remain in Malin Head, reaching out to the people of my area who have relied on their skills and experience for many years. I pray that wise counsel will prevail and that we will not be robbed of this magnificent service now or in the future. I pay tribute to the Coast Guard.
Councillor Orla Beattie:
I thank the Acting Chairman for the opportunity to speak here today. As a member of Limavady Borough Council I represent an area which includes Magilligan and Magilligan Strand. I want to reinforce what my colleagues have said. Magilligan Strand overlooks the Inishowen Peninsula. Each hour, on the hour, the body of water between them is crossed by the Foyle ferry taking people in both directions. Every time the ferry sets out, it communicates with the Malin Head Coast Guard personnel who confirm if it is safe to cross the busy shipping lane. The Coast Guard is a part of everyday life, but in recent times there has been a realisation that it cannot be taken for granted. There has been shock and disbelief on both sides of the Foyle that there could be circumstances of any kind whereby it would be gone from this idyllic but dangerous part of our coastline.
As someone who teaches in Donegal, lives in the North and has the honour to represent Magilligan, one of the most stunning parts of our coast, I plead with the joint committee to allow the officers who man this station to continue the work that they and their predecessors have done for over 100 years. I repeat what my colleague, Mr. Dallat, has said. Let us not be the generation that closes the one cross-Border body which year after year saves lives, many of them from the North.
I thank Mr. Dallat, Deputy Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, as well as Alderman Maura Hickey, the deputy mayor of Coleraine, and Councillor Orla Beattie, a member of Limavady Borough Council, for their attendance. Their contributions to the meeting have been excellent. I now excuse them from the meeting.
Mr. Chris Reynolds:
On behalf of the Irish Coast Guard service, I thank the Acting Chairman very much. We are a bit of a silent service and a successful day for us is when no one hears about us. We appreciate the contributions very much. Inishowen is a beautiful place. Rathmullan House is my favourite hotel in Ireland and Donegal is a beautiful county. The guards in Malin Head are a fine bunch of men. We appreciate the feedback from people who have been rescued and others who have been involved in rescues.
There is one point I forgot to make. The response from the Coast Guard management is withering in its ferocity. Its 19 pages contain comments such as "idle gossip", "lazy reasoning" and "hearsay". Fisher Associates claims that the IRCG lacks a strategic sense of direction and purpose, which is insulting to all the full-time staff and volunteers involved in the service. To state it lacks direction because of the director's absence is not correct. It is not based on evidence. At a minimum it is insulting and based on malicious hearsay and, at worst, it is defamatory. The review lacks sufficient intelligent analysis, which means that most of the findings will not stand up to scrutiny and questions over the competency of Fisher Associates.
Incredibly and somewhat insultingly, Fisher Associates also does not even appear to know how to spell the name throughout the report, using the Commonwealth, possibly indicating that a lot of cutting and pasting from other sources and reports were used throughout the review.
I thank the Acting Chairman for his patience. As Oireachtas committees go, I have to say that the evidence given by some of the witnesses here today is shocking and the answers are incomplete in their substance. The Department has been badly let down. The behaviour and mindset indicates that they are on the same agenda the Department has had in the past. Their display here today has been incompetent. Answers have been fudged and statements they made themselves have been ignored. They have tried to say afterwards that they said something else. I am glad every word that has been said here today has been recorded because at least we will be able to go back over what has been said to see that the departmental witnesses have contradicted themselves on more than one occasion.
If anyone tuned into this meeting today, they would not know if it was an Oireachtas meeting or an episode of "Yes, Minister". I am disappointed with the responses that have been made to genuine questions. We are here today with one objective, which is to fight to retain the Coast Guard service we have in Valentia and Malin Head. We wish to do so because we believe it is for the protection of people's lives in the years ahead. We believe the Department's agenda is wrong, including the centralisation to Dublin. It happened to us when people in Departments advised and ensured in the 1960s that the train service to Cahirciveen and Kenmare was closed.
This is the exact same situation 50 years on with the same mindset facing us again. If it fails this time, it will be tried again. Why are we discussing this today when it was dealt with several years ago and the officials were proved wrong in what they were trying to do then? They are back again now with their agenda. I am disappointed Mr. Mullen has let himself and his Department down with the incompetent responses he gave today to genuine questions.
Mr. Maurice Mullen:
Obviously, I regret the statements the Deputy has made. I do not agree with him. I assure the committee the points made today will be taken in good faith and will be dealt with as fairly and in as best informed a manner as I can. As the Department prepares policy papers for the Minister, we will take on board all the views expressed today. I assure the committee I will take its intentions in good faith which are the same as mine – to save lives.
I indicated at the beginning of the meeting that we are continuing to examine the situation with regard to Valentia. Throughout the process, I have made it very clear that we are not at a point where we are making recommendations. We are still doing the digging in assessing and preparing a response. We know it is not all about economics but a complex situation with long histories and concerns. We are also facing difficulties like other arms of the public service to which we must find solutions. We will give the position the best consideration, however.
When we were speaking to the Minister about this, he said he was not happy about some aspects of the report. Have those matters been clarified for the Minister? Will Mr. Mullen indicate when a recommendation will be made on Valentia? Will he report back to the committee before a decision is made on the station?
Mr. Maurice Mullen:
That is a matter for the Chair and the committee. The Minister has read the reports in detail and there are issues he has flagged. The committee should be under no doubt that we did not look for additional work or for different issues to be teased out. There are issues in the reports with which we are not happy and we do not think some of the conclusions stand up. That is not to say Fisher Associates are at fault either. There is no perfect issue in this. Fisher Associates came to their conclusions. In some of them, while there may be merit, we do not think the logic stands up. Accordingly, we have to put on the table a suite of suggestions as to how, from a policy perspective, the Minister may examine the issues. There will be much dialogue at this stage. The Department will be available to the committee to come back as part of this process. There are many policy issues here on which, ultimately, the Minister will have to make a decision.
I am not sure about the answer to Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill’s question about the shed. My understanding is 22 medivacs involving Spanish speakers were done by Valentia and, obviously, the Royal Air Force has called on the station’s services many times.
Sometimes I am concerned about the information the assistant secretary receives. When the Fearon report, presented by a former assistant secretary, came before this committee, we dissected it paragraph by paragraph. It made assertions about the electricity supply to the Valentia station. The committee got the ESB to show the supply was up to standard. The Fearon report stated telecommunications at the site were not up to standard. All it would have taken to solve the problem in this regard was €22,000. Senior management knew that but it wanted to write down that telecommunications were not up to standard. The committee had to show the building at the site was the fourth largest Coast Guard station in Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales while the report criticised it. The report claimed there was no work for spouses of Coast Guard staff in the place when 11 of the 14 spouses of the staff based there were working locally. Education for staff children was not up to standard according to the Fearon report but 80% of pupils from Coláiste na Sceilge go on to third level education. The committee proved that all bar two of the staff wished to be based there. The predecessor of the Fisher report was full of lies and inaccuracies to follow an agenda.
It is bizarre that four years on there is still equipment sitting in Blanchardstown and there are spares. It could take a couple of hours to use those spares to fix a machine in Valentia. It would seem it does not really matter when someone’s life is at risk and the communications go down. That is inexcusable. It is the same as the Galley Head incident where the equipment was out of commission but not repaired for five months. Four years on, there is no urgency in installing life-saving communications equipment at Valentia. The death certificate had been issued by Motorola prior to 2007.
What I find most appalling is that the criticism of senior management was edited out. I would expect a balanced report to go to the Minister. If there were criticism of senior management by stakeholders, the Minister should get a more rounded view. This is worrying because this is really a case of “Yes, Minister” and we do not want the Minister knowing that senior management has been criticised. Four years on, the Department is still manipulating reports in order that the Minister will give the outcome it wants.
Where does the first draft of the Fisher Associates report state there should be only two stations? It states there are three options but it does not come down on the side of any one in the first draft. However, in the final draft, which we all know was manipulated, it comes down clearly on the side of the two-station proposal.
Mr. Maurice Mullen:
Mr. Reynolds will deal with the Spanish speaker issue.
The responsibility for the completion of the report remained at all times with Fisher Associates. Any editing done to the report was done by the company. They made it very clear to us, as I explained to the committee, the circumstances between the first draft and the second draft. They went into the process I described earlier. There was no manipulation of any process.
Fisher Associates put a suite of conclusions on the table and it is now up to the Department to consider them and, where policy issues arise, for the Minister to decide ultimately whether to accept them. This is why it is an open process and a wide range of views have been expressed. As part of the process we will ultimately develop an action plan that addresses the issues arising. We have been focusing our discussion on the issue of centres but, while the centres are a vital element for us, other elements are also central our considerations, including oil pollution and areas associated with the main survey office, backlogs and legislation. We have to be able to address all of these issues.
Unfortunately, we are dealing with them at the wrong time - this cuts across all areas - and it is difficult to get the staff we need. We fully accept that we must operate within this environment. This is why we are considering the recommendations in depth rather than rushing them through. Every effort is being made to explore our options. We understand why people speak about local knowledge. If there is a benefit to Spanish speakers, that is great, although the international language for aviation and the marine is English. One is expected to operate in English, but that does not undermine the value of the capabilities in Spanish available in Valentia.
Mr. Maurice Mullen:
It was for Fisher Associates to address those challenges. I was clearly aware of what was being said and I met Fisher Associates at that stage. This is not the end of the process per se. Within the Civil Service we are expected to have a robust system of exchange while policy is being developed. It is useful that we are discussing these issues prior to the conclusion of the policy process but members are seeing the sort of robust exchanges that take place both within Departments and between them as we develop robust strategies and policies that can be presented to Ministers. We have to shake proposals vigorously to see what they contain. This is why we have not yet completed the process and we are neither including nor excluding any issues at this stage. I can only give that assurance for the umpteenth time. It will also be an open process with the Minister in respect of what he accepts or otherwise. Like all Ministers, he is an independent individual and will inform himself about where he wants to go. That will be part and parcel of the process.
I will go over this again. I would like Mr. Reynolds to reply to the issue of Spanish language availability. The draft report indicated that language miscommunication is a notable risk in emergency response and that all communication should be in English. The management response argued, however, that this was a legacy of when fishing reports were being logged in the Spanish fleet through Valentia radio station and criticised the report for either failing to note that the traffic has ceased or ignoring that fact and failing to analyse the impact. However, I understand that 22 medivacs or rescues were carried out. A recent RTE documentary showed Valentia’s involvement in co-ordinating a rescue through Spanish. The RAF has similar capabilities. How is it that senior management can claim Fisher Associates are out of date regarding Spanish rescues when RTE can show one being co-ordinated through Spanish? I ask Mr. Reynolds what is actually happening.
Mr. Chris Reynolds:
I shall explain the point as follows. The Spanish fleet reported its catches to the naval base and fishery monitoring centre on a daily basis. Vessels would call up Valentia every day to transmit information on fishing catches. There were also a significant number of link calls to crewmen’s families through Valentia. There was a history of using Spanish for these routine operations. Link calls have effectively been discontinued because people have satellite and mobile telephones and the recording of logs is done electronically via satellite. That is what I meant when I noted that Spanish in routine traffic is a legacy issue. I did not think the fact that most of the staff in Valentia have good Spanish skills was a sufficiently sound reason for picking Valentia over Malin when deciding which station to close.
Mr. Chris Reynolds:
If we are working with a Spanish boat, we want to work in English. If we are responding to a stress emergency, we would prefer to do so through English. The Spanish boat should be using English. Air traffic control does not control Spanish aircraft in Spanish and everyone else in English. It is only by operating solely through English that we can guarantee consistency. My concern is that if the fleet expect someone on the end of the line in Valentia to be a fluent Spanish speaker, I cannot guarantee consistency. I cannot guarantee that every watch officer in Valentia will have good Spanish. A relief officer is currently on duty in Valentia while another officer is on holidays. I do not know if that individual has good Spanish. It is great the officers in Valentia can speak Spanish and they can offer a great service to the Spanish fleet, but co-ordination should be carried out through English. The extra bit of language skills helps, but it is not a reason to pick Valentia over Malin.
Mr. Chris Reynolds:
As it turns out, I lived in Munster for the best part of 20 years. My three children are Munster fans just to annoy me. I may become an Ulster fan this season given the way it is going, but I do not have an agenda against Munster. My favourite place to go on holiday is Falcarragh, but I would like to retire to Munster. I do not have an anti-Munster or pro-Ulster agenda.
It would be great to leave here with a straight answer. How long will it take to prepare a report and clear recommendations for the Minister? Can we arrange another meeting to discuss that report before it is finalised?
We have to be clear about this. Mr. Mullen said the Department needed other assistance with the report. I asked who the outside experts were and he said the Department was staying with Fisher Associates. The Department is asking them to take a third look at the report.
I asked him what other expertise the Department was using and he replied, "Fisher Associates". Is it correct that the Department has given them further directions to tweak their report for a third time?
We have spent almost four hours on this. Many members and people supporting them have devoted a great deal of time in preparation for this meeting. At a time when there are 450,000 people on the live register, we have a huge budgetary deficit and the country faces massive problems, the fact we are giving so much time to an issue that should never have arisen in the first place is a sin. I am sure there is someone in the Department with a big enough shredder to take the Fisher Associates report and do away with it. There will be no major financial savings if any of the proposals are implemented. There will be great uncertainty about the delivery of service and the Department cannot ignore the collective voice of all the public representatives who are present because, ultimately, we represent the people. Mr. Mullen cannot continue to ignore those voices. It is rare that Members on all sides of both Houses sing from the same hymn sheet. Will he consider strongly everything we have said?
It is an emotive issue, about which people are angry and upset. It is about time this issue was put to bed once and for all. The Department has tried and failed and it should accept it will not succeed on this because the people will not have it. Will Mr. Mullen examine alternative areas to justify recruiting people who are needed for this emergency front-line service? This is not an area in which the Department has to make a case for hiring staff. It is not an unnecessary service that we can do without in lean times. As assistant secretary in the Department, Mr. Mullen can make that case to the Minister and he can ensure staff are recruited. That is the most feasible solution to the problem. Will he seriously consider that? He should not leave our voices go unheard because we are representing the people of Kerry and Donegal and others elsewhere in the country who are engaged in the maritime sector.
What has been said today is clear and further pursuit of this ridiculous notion would be an affront to democracy. There might be merit in the report if it would make a significant contribution to our efforts to bring about fiscal rectitude or to provide a better service and neither of those prospects is clear. I ask the Department to step back from this and to apply a little common sense.
I concur with Deputy Griffin's remarks. Reference was made to the fine helicopter the Coast Guard has. There is no reason experts could not be in Valentia Island or Malin Head given helicopters can land at both stations. There is a fine airport in Kerry at which the search and rescue helicopter lands regularly to refuel. The logistics involved should be considered in the report as well. I ask the officials to go back and think this out. They should think of the local people because, at the end of the day, we are talking about people's lives. Cost savings and so on are all very well but what cost will the officials put on one life?
This is a life or death issue and that is why we are exercised about it. I do not know whether Mr. Mullen answered the question about whether a risk assessment was carried out on the Dublin station before the equipment was installed above a kitchen. I believe it has been evacuated a few times. The assistant secretary felt the criticism of senior management in the first draft of the Fisher Associates report was unfounded. It stated, "With better management, many people [not one individual] considered that it could provide more out put with the same resources". That sounds like value for money. Many people said that to Fisher Associates but it did not appear in the draft that was forwarded to the Minister. The Department did not allow it. Officials did not say, "That seems to be a criticism of many stakeholders so we'll leave it in there". That is not the only time people said something critical of senior management. The report states, "During the internal consultation, it is very clear that many experienced people within the organisation below senior management level felt that the Irish Coast Guard could be better run". This again did not appear in the report that was forwarded to the Minister. It was edited out. Pages of criticism by people internally and externally did not go to the Minister and that is disturbing.
Mr. Mullen referred to a suite of observations. Fisher Associates made a suite of observations in their first draft but they never said, "I believe you should go for this". In the first draft, did they ever say they had one preference over another? Will Mr. Reynolds clarify that?
Mr. Maurice Mullen:
I responded to that question in full. The first draft they produced was the document that Fisher Associates say they put forward as the challenge document. They made it clear to us at that stage that they were then going to engage with the senior management side and following on from that, they would draw up their definitive views on this. It was not marked "draft" for nothing. It was made very clear to us that this was part and parcel of the deliberative process that Fisher Associates themselves were conducting. That is the fundamental truth. As far as I was concerned, I was less worried about what they did or did not say in respect of that as long as that, by the time they finished the deliberative process, which they were steering, the subject had been totally addressed and Fisher Associates were satisfied and would stand over their final recommendations.
All the criticisms by many people below senior management level and the stakeholders they spoke to were edited out following discussion with senior management and that was then presented to the Minister. In the draft report, as I understand it, there was no preference expressed by Fisher Associates. Is that correct?
Mr. Chris Reynolds:
As Mr. Mullen said, the first draft of the report was a draft report. It was not a case of quod scripsi scripsi. It was a draft report which they called the challenge report. When they produced a draft report, they were unaware of a lot of information. They were unaware of how a Government Department was structured internally. Many things in their report were factually incorrect and when all these matters were made clear to them, they produced the second and third drafts. The issue here, as Mr. Mullen rightly stated, is that it was a draft report and a challenge to us to respond and justify. My biggest concern with the draft report was not those comments but that they were looking to cut the volunteer service in half, close 20 teams, remove all the boats and more or less remove all the cliff climbing equipment. These were the issues at which I took umbrage, not the personalised issues.
There are references to internal consultation meetings and "It was very clear that many experienced people within the organisation...". Did they consult internally or not? Is the draft report inaccurate in the sense that they did not consult internally?
Mr. Chris Reynolds:
They did not understand that, for example, IT was not inside the Coast Guard but was somewhere else so the ability to change our IT systems was not contained within the Coast Guard. They did not understand the 21 day search. Remember the response of the people in Union Hall to the Tit Bonhomme. My concern was that they looked at the Coast Guard effectively on the right-hand side of the balance sheet as something that incurred a loss and was expensive and needed to be looked at. We were trying to point them in the direction of seeing the Coast Guard as an investment now and for the future. That was the dialogue that went on. It was a matter of explaining to them where in their documents-----
With all due respect, is Mr. Reynolds telling me that the experts employed by the Department did not understand it and that the Department continued to use them for the second and third time despite the fact that they did not understand it?
Does Mr. Reynolds have a ballpark figure as to what the Department has paid Fisher Associates so far for the two reports and possibly for this other engagement with them in respect of preparing a third report before presenting it to the Minister?
I did not get a reply to the fact that I pointed out again that there was no recommendation here. My point is that the final draft most certainly contained a recommendation. It was the recommendation that senior management wanted. We asked the question about Spanish trawlers and we received an answer about Spanish air traffic control and all the international rules. The fact that Mr. Reynolds does not know how many Spanish speakers there are in Valentia Island does not say much for senior management but then the draft report says a lot about senior management anyway. What I do not understand is that he does not seem to care that there are Spanish trawlers without English speakers on board who rely on Valentia Island and that Valentia Island saves lives. He just says the rules are that an English speaker must be used in communications.
Listening to what has been said, the one thing I often hear from the public sector is the fact that reports are written, conclusions are derived from those reports and, obviously, there is a cost associated with that. A sum of €50,000 is not a small sum of money, rather it is a very substantial sum in the current climate. There are many officials employed within the public sector, including the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport, and I cannot understand why these reports have to be undertaken by outside experts, people who do not even live in this country. How can one justify undertaking a so-called independent report and to deliver the recommendation from that report, employ the same people to finalise a recommendation that goes to the Minister? That does not make sense. One can employ a group of consultants to produce a report, with officials within the Department then scrutinising the findings and presenting a proposal to the Minister, but how can one go back and spend another €8,000 or €9,000 employing the same consultants to scrutinise the report? We are not experts but we have gone through it line by line.
It galls me when questions are asked here today about who has been consulted. We have not heard who has been consulted. Who was consulted along the seaboard? Mr. Reynolds referred to the fact that staff at Valentia Island and Malin Head were consulted. They may have been consulted. Their proposals were included in draft one and their recommendations were removed in draft two. Mr. Mullen indicated that the Department responded to draft one. If the Department did respond to draft one, why were the recommendations of the ordinary staff who work 24-7 and give all of their time in Malin Head and Valentia Island excluded from the final report when the Department's recommendations were taken into consideration? It appears that there is some form of collusion between Irish Coast Guard senior management and Fisher Associates. If there is no such collusion, why the hell are Fisher Associates still on the table? We are here today to talk about the report and now we find out that Fisher Associates will come back, get €8,000 or €9,000 and decide the outcome of the independent report in conjunction with the management of the Coast Guard and Department officials. We are wasting our time here if that is where we are going.
Mr. Maurice Mullen:
Under the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform rules, we are required to undertake this type of value for money review by external bodies.
There are no "ifs" or "buts" about it. That is what must be done.
With regard to who is being consulted, we opened up to Fisher Associates anybody we knew of who may be involved in the sector. As this is an independent company undertaking a value for money review, this is not a management report where we sought the company's assistance to help develop some management issue. This is an outside group whose job it was to assess the process critically.
A significant number of representations were made to Fisher Associates and included in the first draft. I must assume that Fisher Associates saw this as a challenge process. In that deliberative process they decided they would not run with the recommendations of other stakeholders. If a recommendation from a stakeholder comes out, it must be borne in mind that it was a Fisher Associates decision as to whether it would come out and it was the right of the firm to decide that. I cannot be definitive on the issue but the only conclusion I can draw is that when the firm added two plus two, the result did not stand up. That is part of a robust deliberative process in which the firm tried to engage. The language was tough but that is the game we are playing. This was not an advisory report but a value for money report.
As I noted earlier, Fisher Associates stuck to their view and they do not mind what we do with the report; it is Ireland's report now. Fisher Associates held the view that we are going about the process wrong. They believe we should have two centres rather than three or one.
There are 19 pages of rebuttal. We would like to hear the views of the man who wrote the report, with whom he consulted and why he changed a report after consulting with external and internal stakeholders, including people below senior management level who were critical of senior management. All that was taken out.
What we have seen with this evolving issue is the worst case of departmental stroke politics there has ever been. Mr. Mullen is at the helm of it and he has much to answer for at a future date. We will obviously not get any better answers now. No matter how much time we give today, the witness is fudging, ducking and diving.
There is a request to the author of the Fisher Associates report to attend the committee. I thank all the members who attended, particularly those who stayed for the full session through the day and evening. It has been a robust meeting with logical and rational contributions. There was very comprehensive questioning. I thank all of our witnesses for the responses to the various questions. We are very hopeful there will be a good outcome as it is a very significant emotional issue. It is beyond doubt that the services at Valentia and Malin are among the most valuable in this country, particularly with human life being at stake at all times. The service has achieved much in the past and I am sure it can progress in a very positive manner in future. I hope we can come to a good conclusion. I thank the witnesses.