Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 2 April 2015
Public Accounts Committee
Draft Report on Visit to Vietnam
The sole item on the agenda is to consider the report on the recent visit to Vietnam. There is no other matter on the agenda from previous meetings, but we will deal with that at our next meeting.
There are two issues we should consider. One of them arises from our previous meeting where considerable concern was expressed by a number of people, including the Chairman, about No. 16 Hanover Quay and the manner in which the sale was conducted.
Further concern was expressed both by the Chairman and Deputy Deasy about the manner in which the Jeanie Johnstonmatter was handled. Perhaps the committee could consider doing something in the same manner as it did with the Howth issue and visit to see for itself the strategic development of the old docklands area. We should see for ourselves, in particular.
I thank the Chairman. I have been appalled by the accounts of the Ian Bailey case, which went on for 64 days. On day 62 of the hearing, it was brought to the attention of the court that for the most part the material came under the Statute of Limitations and was not relevant to the case. This was a waste of jury time and the bill for the State's legal representatives will be approximately €5 million. It would seem the normal practice is that matters in relation to the Statute of Limitations are dealt with before the trial starts or at the very beginning of the trial. The Courts Service and the Office of the Chief State Solicitor have to answer why so much time and taxpayers' money was spent on this case. I believe there are a number of similar questions on other cases as well.
At one stage we asked the Garda Commissioner about the cost of the investigation into the Bailey case. There was an issue in respect of that case and others and we agreed to invite the Office of the Chief State Solicitor to come before the committee to deal with some aspects of the administration of that office. If members are agreeable, we can include that item when the Office of the Chief State Solicitor comes before us. I will ask the clerk to investigate if the Courts Service could come in on the same day and we could deal with the general issues that have been raised.
We will ask the clerk to examine what other players we can include when the Office of the Chief State Solicitor and the Courts Service come before us.
I am concerned about the work programme because we must find a date for the HSE as well. I do not want the issue that Deputy Costello has raised to drift. We should set a date as soon as possible, on a Tuesday or Wednesday, to visit the Jeanie Johnstonand that general area. We should look at the work agenda to see how we can speed up the process of the hearings in order that this can be included at an early date. Is that agreed? Agreed.
We will now deal with the report of the visit to Vietnam. I understand a number of matters arising from the successful visit have been dealt with. As Deputy Deasy led the delegation, I invite him to lead off.
Unfortunately, I must leave early. I will deal with what we achieved in two areas, Irish development aid and the trade opportunity that Vietnam presents.
The people would be proud of the work of the ambassador, H.E. Mr. Damien Cole, and his staff. It is important we publicise the work they do and what they have achieved. Irish aid has been spent in areas that provide relief not only in the medium term but also in the long term. We visited schools and health care facilities and saw the road infrastructure that was built by Irish taxpayers' money. This is playing a significant role in humanitarian terms.
From the perspective of opportunities in trade, and Deputy Deasy will speak in more detail on this, when we think of south-east Asia, we think of China, which is a major market, but Vietnam has a population of 91 million in a region of 600 million people and it has a growing middle class. The growing economy represents great opportunities, particularly from a food perspective. What came across to us is the need for more State agency personnel on the ground to promote trade, especially in agricultural products. The market is very competitive but there is significant potential for trade. If one thing is to come from our report, it is the need for the relevant bodies in Ireland to work with the bodies in Vietnam to ensure they are properly staffed and resourced in what is a very tough global market economy. With the proper investment in manpower on the ground, we would have a much better opportunity of trading into these countries.
I thank the officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and all those who participated on the trip. We had a very full programme over a number of days. From the taxpayer's perspective, we can be proud of the way Irish aid is being spent. As with all aid programmes, it must be kept under constant review as the country is beginning to thrive, but there is massive social poverty and deprivation.
There are opportunities to trade and we should concentrate on dairy products. We should ensure we reap the rewards of the product we sell to them. During our visit we met the Vietnamese Minister for planning and investment and Deputy Deasy raised with him that Ireland is open for business and that we would like to do business with them. It was a very worthwhile trip and taxpayers can be reassured that money is spent prudently. The aid programme must be kept under constant review and there are significant opportunities for us there.
I apologise that I must leave the meeting.
I will develop the trade element. The three of us have an interest in agriculture, particularly the export of dairy products. The current value of Irish dairy exports is €1.6 billion, but the market for liquid milk and milk ingredient products in Vietnam is worth $6 billion. That market has not been tapped into by Ireland in any great shape or form. It became an inescapable fact that much work needs to be done in this area. A lot has happened since we returned home. The draft report has been compiled and will issue to members in due course. We came to the conclusion that we need more personnel from Bord Bia and Enterprise Ireland on the ground in Vietnam. With the ending of milk quotas and the free trade agreement being hammered out between the European Commission and the Vietnamese, this is timely. We have had conversations with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine since our return. He has spoken to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and agreement has been reached to fund additional personnel in emerging markets. The Minister has agreed in principle to use some of that money to fund an individual from Bord Bia in Vietnam to promote the food and dairy industries specifically.
From that standpoint, the work we did with the embassy will bear some fruit. It became inescapable after being there just for a few days the kind of market that has begun to open in Vietnam, with a lower middle class income range emerging there. It is important we spread our risk effectively when it comes to the dairy industry outside China. The free trade agreement that will be hammered out between the European Commission and Vietnam does not just affect Vietnam but also acts as a gateway to the Association of South East Asian Nations, ASEAN, countries, with a population of approximately 630 million people. The Kerry Group has been working in Vietnam and will make an announcement when it comes to a very tiny slice of the milk industry there. It has a collaboration with an indigenous company and that is really the first kind of enterprise that has taken hold in Vietnam with an Irish-owned company.
Bord Bia's presence is in Shanghai in China and the comment or criticism from people we met in business circles dealing with food is that all our bets seem to be placed in China. As a result of what is happening in south-east Asia, the idea is that we need to create a presence outside China. In many respects, Vietnam is the engine in south-east Asia and those people believe strongly that the presence should be in Vietnam. There is also an issue with regard to where the embassy is located. The commercial hub of Vietnam is Saigon or Ho Chi Minh City and not Hanoi. That is also significant.
There is some precedent in the agricultural sector. The pork market was opened and exports began in 2014. Work has been done within the Department in that regard. When it comes to the initial step, the timing is right for the funding of an individual or individuals in Vietnam. As we learned, the most significant groundwork for contacts within official and government circles has been done over the past ten years. It has taken that long for our officials in the embassy to create a very substantial and solid contact network within government circles. The timing is right for these kinds of initiatives because of contacts made over the past ten years.
I will not be mealy-mouthed about the fact that we have helped programmes through Irish Aid over the past ten years and, as a result, this has allowed us access to government circles. That has proved very productive with respect to government officials and politicians understanding Ireland a little better. We should capitalise on that, and there is a need for us to use those contacts in an area like food and dairy. That is the conclusion everyone reached, including us, the embassy and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. Since our return, that issue has been solidified, and I believe it will result in additional personnel from Bord Bia being funded to go to Vietnam. For that reason, it was a positive trip.
Deputy Deasy has certainly described the trip very well. I visited Vietnam as Minister of State with responsibility for trade and development in 2013. It is the only country outside Africa that is a partner country for Irish Aid. After the Vietnam war - or the war with America, as it is called there - Ireland was very quick to provide assistance and a presence on the ground to help in dealing with a de-mining programme and decommissioning weapons. Mines still regularly kill many people in Vietnam. We also deal with minorities. Another benefit of the Irish Aid activity is that approximately 24 Vietnamese people come each year to Ireland to study in the Smurfit business school and do a masters in business administration. Others come within other categories, and there is a very strong business link with what Irish Aid has done in lifting the country and providing some of the brightest in Vietnam with good quality business education in Ireland.
To some extent, this goes back to the first Irish semi-State body that invested in Vietnam, which was ESB International. That was under the leadership of Mr. Paddy Moriarty, brother of broadcaster Mícheál Ó Muircheartaigh, but unfortunately Paddy is now deceased. He was the first to bring Vietnamese students to Ireland and he even brought them to his own home in Kerry. One of those bright students he brought to Ireland is now the Deputy Prime Minister of Vietnam. He regards himself as the Irish man in the cabinet. We have a very strong link with Vietnam at the highest level at which we can do business. ESB International, as an Irish company, is still very much involved with Vietnam.
We have much to go on and our relationship is very strong. Irish Aid has been strong for a while and last year we finalised an adoption agreement with Vietnam as well. Its Minister for justice came here and our Minister went over there. That agreement has worked out satisfactorily. As Deputy Deasy stated, with the lifting of the milk quota there is an obvious area for Irish business to engage. There has always been engagement with New Zealand or Holland and not this corner of the world because quotas have been in operation for 30 years. I fully agree with Bord Bia and the Kerry Group being involved in that respect.
There should be a full-scale trade mission going from Ireland to Vietnam. Deputy Deasy's comments are correct and there seems to be a perception of putting so many eggs in the China basket, which has taken much attention and time, along with numerous ministerial visits and trade missions. That is desirable but there are 93 million people in Vietnam, which is growing at a fast rate in Asia, and that presents many opportunities. There is an incredibly good relationship between the countries, so the opportunities exist. We should certainly expand on them.
I welcome the report. I will ask the clerk to change the foreword to reflect the fact that Deputy Deasy and others contributed in the way they did. I ask that we do some form of press presentation. We can send out a press release and flag the success of the delegation and what has transpired since it returned. In light of the fact we give €12.25 million in aid, it is important for us to have the right structures to monitor that spend. As has been proven in Vietnam, the structures are there and are being used by other countries which are delivering aid in Vietnam. From a trade perspective, I cannot agree more with Deputies Deasy and Costello in that having a presence in the country is very important. It can take many years for a business to build a relationship with a partner in parts of Asia and that requires a lot of investment. The Government should invest, first and foremost, and put its foot forward because having a presence in Vietnam is essential. This is especially relevant when we consider the Chinese economy, which has many advance factories built in Vietnam.
The Chinese are looking at that market and their presence there. All that is based on the cost of labour. It is important, therefore, for us to be in the middle of that economic activity. Having people on the ground means they might look at the markets other European countries are exploiting such as Taiwan. We have raised this previously with various Departments that have appeared before us.
I am delighted the Deputy managed to visit some schools and industry and that he met some project leaders on the ground, which was very important. As was the case in other visits, time was taken to look at the disability and research sectors. I support Deputy Costello's view on trade missions. It is important we have a full trade mission to Vietnam. I thank Deputy Deasy and the other members of the delegation for their work there and their work since they returned. We should continue to highlight the aid programme and the strong possibilities for trade as we do our work.
I recommend we accept the report and publish it with the various corrections that are needed in terms of other inputs. We should then draft a press release and send it.
It probably should be mentioned that a director from the Comptroller and Auditor General's office accompanied us to go through the controls within the Vietnamese Government's systems. That will be part of the report we compile. It is important because this involves a great deal of money. That should be included as well.
Yes. We are concentrating on trade and that is fine, but the essential part of this for the past ten years has been the money we put into Irish Aid and the systems within the Vietnamese Government's structures of accounting for that. We felt comfortable about its practices but that will be part of the report we do and the findings.
The Dáil does not sit next week. The HSE will be here the week after. When we look at Bytel, it will be a limited hearing and perhaps we could have another agency or Department in to bring the work programme into line. We can then arrange that visit for when the Dáil resumes. We agreed to that at the beginning. We have agreed the report.