Dáil debates

Tuesday, 6 December 2005

4:00 pm

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Leader of the Opposition; Opposition Spokesperson on Northern Ireland; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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There is a number of subjects one could raise today, including the price of cars. I would like to get closure on several matters, the first of which may be of relevance to the Tánaiste and Minister for Health and Children. The Taoiseach is aware, as it has been raised before during Leaders' Questions, that the famous PPARS project has cost more than €160 million of public money. Much of the focus on this has gone back to two major consultancy firms and the fees they received. However, the sorry story of the PPARS project is not just confined to large consultancy companies. Following a number of months of investigation into this, I have learned that 14 companies were paid almost €7 million in respect of staff recruited for the PPARS project.

One of those companies, known as Blackmore Group Assets Limited, received €2 million from the HSE in respect of the recruitment of seven staff. We all know about accountability and transparency. Blackmore Group Assets Limited is not registered in this State or in the United Kingdom. It uses a privately owned trust company in Guernsey to bill the HSE; I have invoices here. Blackmore Group Assets Limited is a shelf company with no substance. When these points were put to the HSE last week for investigation, it insisted that Blackmore is a United Kingdom based recruitment company. The HSE refused to accept the onshore connections or that there are any tax implications in the way Blackmore Group Assets Limited has been paid.

My charge is that the HSE either does not know about this, is incompetent about this or has failed to come clean about it. Although some Ministers might consider €2 million a small amount of money, it was public money paid to a company I cannot trace. I cannot identify any of the directors or where they are located beyond having an address of a shelf company in Guernsey. I am concerned that Irish law should be fully adhered to, that Irish tax law is fully complied with and that the public should know who is getting paid its money for the recruitment of staff.

I do not suggest that the staff recruited were unable to do the job. However, I would like to know the situation in respect of this particular shelf company registered in Guernsey. If the Taoiseach has all the information from the Tánaiste, I hope he can answer these questions. Who are the directors of this company, where are they located and what background check was done on them? Why did they receive €2 million of public money when nobody can trace their location?

Photo of Pádraic McCormackPádraic McCormack (Galway West, Fine Gael)
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How many hospital beds would that have provided?

Photo of Bertie AhernBertie Ahern (Taoiseach; Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)
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The new system for management control of information and communications technology, ICT, projects in Departments was announced by the Government in October to ensure such projects are managed to best practice standards. As part of that process, the Department of Finance has just introduced a peer review for these projects. Three such projects have been selected to commence immediately on that basis. The peer review process will comprise senior personnel from within and outside the public service with a record of successful management in ICT projects. The peer review team should help to reduce the risk of sub-optimal outcomes, such as cost and time overruns and unexpected long-term maintenance and support costs. The team can suggest that the scope of the project should be modified or that it should be rephased into multiple releases or terminated. A potential list of reviewers has been drawn up by the Department.

Photo of Jim O'KeeffeJim O'Keeffe (Cork South West, Fine Gael)
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Who are the sub-optimal beneficiaries?

Photo of Bertie AhernBertie Ahern (Taoiseach; Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)
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A review group has been established to review the delivery of PPARS, as Deputy Kenny is aware, so that it meets the requirements of the Health Service Executive. The work of the review group, which is ongoing, will involve trying to determine the most cost-effective and efficient option for the HSE and evaluating the resource and the schedules in it. The estimate of €35 million that was provided by the HSE relates to the system's running costs, as originally envisaged. The Department of Finance is looking for substantial reductions in the running costs in the context of this review.

In respect of the company mentioned by Deputy Kenny and the other companies, the head of the HSE and his senior colleagues are examining all the contracts and the background to them. They are assessing how all such issues were followed through. I cannot speak about individual contracts until we see the report. I have been informed that procurement policies were followed in this instance. I will be honest with Deputy Kenny. I do not know whether the company in question was registered in Dublin, Guernsey or the UK. I do not know and I will not guess.

Photo of Dan NevilleDan Neville (Limerick West, Fine Gael)
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The Taoiseach does not care.

Photo of Bertie AhernBertie Ahern (Taoiseach; Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)
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I do not have any facts about the individual company. I am aware that all the contracts in this regard are being examined. All the records of how and where things were done will be considered to ascertain whether the money was dealt with appropriately. That will be included in the report I have mentioned and also in the report of the Comptroller and Auditor General. The latter report, work on which is ongoing, is due to be published before Christmas, to the best of my knowledge. All the other issues relating to this matter are being examined. I know that Professor Drumm hopes to have all this work done on time.

Photo of Enda KennyEnda Kenny (Leader of the Opposition; Opposition Spokesperson on Northern Ireland; Mayo, Fine Gael)
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I do not expect the Taoiseach to be able to give answers on all the minutiae of this matter. When I submitted a freedom of information request on this issue last July, the Health Service Executive responded by giving certain information. The Tánaiste subsequently gave further information, which had been made available to her by the HSE, in response to a parliamentary question.

If the HSE had been a private company, questions would have been asked in the House about payments being made to accounts in the Channel Islands. The response of the HSE has been to state that the company in question was a recruitment agency based in the UK. It has been confirmed to me by the UK crown office that the Channel Islands are crown dependencies and not parts of the United Kingdom. An invoice for €4,900 issued by Blackmore Group Assets Limited gives the address and e-mail address of the company, but nothing else. Nobody in this House, the Department of Health and Children or the HSE can pinpoint who the directors of the company are. Who checked the company out? Why did it receive public money of €2 million for the recruitment of seven personnel? If we are in the business of spending taxpayers' money on the recruitment of personnel, surely we can find out where the money went and why €2 million was paid to a shelf company.

It is understandable that the Taoiseach would not have all the answers when answering questions in the House, but I would like him to be fully acquainted with all the facts of this case. The Tánaiste, who may have all the answers, should put such information on the record so that people can know to whom their hard-earned taxes are being paid.

Photo of Bertie AhernBertie Ahern (Taoiseach; Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)
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I appreciate the Deputy's remarks. All the PPARS contracts are being examined as part of the Comptroller and Auditor General's investigation. I understand there was a procurement mechanism and the staff in question were working. The issues which are under investigation include ascertaining who the beneficial owners of the companies were, to whom the moneys were paid and how the structures worked. I am aware that senior personnel within the HSE have indicated that they will compile a full report on foot of all the documentation available to them going back a number of years. They must give information to the Comptroller and Auditor General, but they also intend to report on all aspects of the matter. It is obvious that these issues will arise again as soon as the information is made available.

I understand a number of contracts are in question involving a substantial amount of money. I think the cost of the entire PPARS project over approximately eight years to the end of last year was approximately €117 million. It is estimated that €53 million was provided this year. I do not have a breakdown between capital and revenue. It was intended to complete the project by the end of next year, as Members are aware. The HSE has undertaken that it will fully examine all the contracts and give full details on them in the form of a report. I cannot give any more information to the House until we get such details.

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Dublin South West, Labour)
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Will the Taoiseach respond to the growing public concern at home and internationally about aircraft used by the CIA for the purposes of executive rendition landing at various European airports? Will he specifically address the 50 landings at Shannon Airport of which we are aware? The former President, Mrs. Mary Robinson, has made some public comments on the matter. Amnesty International made a statement on the subject in response to a direct request from the Minister for Foreign Affairs. There is growing concern across Europe about this issue.

The information that is now available to us contradicts the assurances given by the US Secretary Of State, Dr. Condoleezza Rice, who has not denied that the transport of prisoners has taken place but has carefully denied that such aircraft have ferried prisoners for the purposes of torture. Such information does not offer much relief to people familiar with the new US definition of "torture". According to today's The Irish Times, the definition was "narrowed significantly in a justice department memo of August 2002". The Irish Times cited the memo which argued that torture is only torture when it involves "physical pain ... equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death". All that Dr. Rice has denied is that such a form of torture has taken place. However, it has been admitted on behalf of the CIA that prisoners might have been transported for the purposes of what is known as "enhanced interrogation". If I had the opportunity, I would read into the record the definition of what is meant by "enhanced interrogation".

Can the Taoiseach outline the assurances which have been given to him by the representatives of the US Government? Most of the activity to which I refer is taking place on foot of the Iraq war. When I questioned the Taoiseach about the war at the time, he said he did not know whether Ireland was a member of the coalition of the willing. I do not know whether he has found that out since then. If Ireland is a friendly country to the US, as the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has said, it is entitled to receive the assurances to which I refer and to remind the US that while it may land its aircraft at Shannon Airport, such aircraft are liable to inspection. The Minister for Foreign Affairs has restricted his comments to assuring us that nothing untoward is going on. Given that the Taoiseach is so close to the Minister, can he interpret for the House what the Minister meant by "untoward", especially in light of what is in the public domain?

Photo of Bertie AhernBertie Ahern (Taoiseach; Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)
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I remind the House that a recent resolution passed by the United Nations, which has agreed a number of resolutions, gave a full sanction to the mission that is taking place in Iraq. Such approval has been included in a number of UN resolutions. Deputy Rabbitte is correct in that there have been considerable issues about this matter in a number of European countries and here in recent weeks. This was one of the primary reasons that the Minister for Foreign Affairs some weeks ago sought a meeting with the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, to raise these issues with her. As the Deputy knows, that meeting took place last week. We in Ireland cannot and will not allow any aircraft engaged in what are called "extraordinary renditions" to land or refuel at any Irish airport. Ireland has not and will not facilitate torture of prisoners by any state. Any use of torture, wherever it occurs, would be wrong and deeply reprehensible. All Government powers would be exercised to preclude the use of any Irish facility where, in the language of the European Court of Human Rights, there are substantial grounds for believing there is a risk of torture of a prisoner.

So far as we are concerned, the only definition of torture recognised is the one found in our law. This is the definition of that term in international law. We have repeatedly raised this matter with the US authorities and we have been repeatedly assured by the US authorities, including the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, that no prisoners have been or will be transferred through this country in aircraft owned or operated by the United States or its agents. Ireland accepts the repeated assurances given by the representatives of the Government of the United States. The US authorities are aware of the importance we attach to these assurances. We have raised these matters a number of times to the highest of levels.

On her present mission, the Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, is dealing with these issues. She is to give extensive press conferences later this evening at which she will deal directly with these issues and some of the questions raised on definitions. Deputy Rabbitte is saying that when questioned yesterday she did not elaborate on her definition. These issues will be raised with her later this evening. She said today in Germany that she will deal with these issues in the public domain.

Obviously if anyone has evidence to demonstrate that prisoners have been wrongly or unlawfully transferred through Irish territory, that evidence should be passed on and we will engage with the Garda Síochána. We are not aware of any such evidence. The matter would then become an issue of law enforcement, albeit with an interstate dimension. Each application to land or refuel in Irish airports from whatever source is assessed on a case-by-case basis. That is the system. All the circumstances are considered before permission is granted to land. Ireland has honoured and continues to honour its obligations in international law and under the European Convention on Human Rights.

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Dublin South West, Labour)
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We are not talking about military aircraft landing with prior approval, we are talking about ostensibly civilian commercial aircraft. Clearly the Taoiseach is aware that to disguise state aircraft as civilian commercial aircraft is in breach of the Chicago Convention. It is not enough for the Taoiseach to say that anybody with evidence should give it to the Garda at Sixmilebridge. How am I supposed to get evidence? I am asking questions as an Opposition politician in this House. What steps has the Taoiseach taken? Has he just taken the assurances at face value? We got assurances that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. What steps has the Taoiseach taken to establish the truth? Is he saying that for the 50 landings at Shannon about which we now know — no thanks to the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs — the aircraft were empty?

Is the Taoiseach saying that the Government does not propose to exercise its right of inspection and search under the Chicago Convention? Does he not accept the remarks of the former President, Mary Robinson, about the Constitution imposing a responsibility for law enforcement in our jurisdiction? We are not supposed to take assurances on a matter as grave as this one at face value given the recent track record. Offering me the prospect of bringing forward evidence to the Garda locally is ludicrous. The Taoiseach is leader of the Government. While admittedly the Minister for Foreign Affairs does not have a great record in finding out things, in this situation it is the least I would expect.

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs; Louth, Fianna Fail)
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Deputy Rabbitte should watch his steps.

Photo of Jim O'KeeffeJim O'Keeffe (Cork South West, Fine Gael)
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There might be a few trees in County Clare.

Photo of Bertie AhernBertie Ahern (Taoiseach; Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)
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I am aware what the responsibilities are in accordance with the 1944 Chicago Convention on international civil aviation. Aircraft may come into Ireland for refuelling stops without notifying the Department of Transport. No notification of these aircraft can be dealt with. There is the Air Service Authorisation Order 1993. I repeat what I said earlier, it has been made clear that the State must refuse permission to land in circumstances where a prisoner has been transferred other than through the process of being a bona fide extradition or where a prisoner is a sentenced prisoner. The phenomenon of transferring prisoners by way of what is called "extraordinary rendition" does not come within the category of permissible flights that can be given permission to land in the territory of the State.

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Dublin South West, Labour)
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I agree, but were there prisoners on it?

Photo of Bertie AhernBertie Ahern (Taoiseach; Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)
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Any request to land an aircraft engaged in extraordinary rendition must be refused. We raised the matter repeatedly, including at the very highest level, as late as last week with the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, and she again stated the position. She was well aware that the Minister would raise the matter and had plenty of time to check her facts. She said that this country has not and will not be used for that.

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Dublin South West, Labour)
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Why did the Government not check the airplanes?

Photo of Bertie AhernBertie Ahern (Taoiseach; Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)
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Under international law that does not happen on military or civilian flights run under the ambit of the military.

Photo of Pat RabbittePat Rabbitte (Dublin South West, Labour)
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Under the Chicago Convention——

Photo of Rory O'HanlonRory O'Hanlon (Cavan-Monaghan, Ceann Comhairle)
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The Deputy cannot ask another question and should allow the Taoiseach to continue without interruption.

Photo of Bertie AhernBertie Ahern (Taoiseach; Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)
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A convention and a precedent have covered this for 50 years and we have followed them. While there is concern about these issues — I, like everybody else, will be very interested to hear what the US Secretary of State has to say on the broader issues tonight, including some of the questions raised by the former president, Mrs. Robinson, whom I also hold in high regard in the ambit of human rights — we will follow the practice we have followed. If the US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, gives us assurances I must accept them.

Photo of Joe HigginsJoe Higgins (Dublin West, Socialist Party)
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Yesterday approximately 120 Afghans protested outside Leinster House. They were recently refused asylum in the State and they are now asking the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform for leave to remain on humanitarian grounds. Many of them were opponents of the Taliban regime. On what basis is this cruel decision being made leading to them being threatened with deportation? Is it on the basis that Afghanistan is a supposed democracy, when everybody knows it is a war-torn zone? The past two months have been the bloodiest since the American invasion in 2001. Warlords rule large parts of the country with no respect for human rights or democracy. Women are routinely forced behind the burqa. Amnesty International states that those guilty of human rights abuses are entrenched in positions of power in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is a country where the United States Central Intelligence Agency runs some of its so-called "black sites", the secret prisons. Afghans and people from many other countries are snatched and incarcerated in these American gulags with no legal process or protection.

It is to the eternal shame of the Government that the same airplanes that have carried out those kidnappings have been allowed to use Shannon Airport as a facility. It is incredible that the Government accepts assurances from the United States Secretary of State, the person who——

Photo of Rory O'HanlonRory O'Hanlon (Cavan-Monaghan, Ceann Comhairle)
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Questions must be confined to one topical issue.

Photo of Joe HigginsJoe Higgins (Dublin West, Socialist Party)
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——was central to the construction of the monstrous lie on which the invasion of Iraq was launched, which the Taoiseach also said he believed. As we are entering the season when everybody in this country wants to have a feeling of peace, compassion and happiness, will the Taoiseach please enter into dialogue with the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform on behalf of these unfortunate people——

Photo of Rory O'HanlonRory O'Hanlon (Cavan-Monaghan, Ceann Comhairle)
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The time has concluded.

Photo of Joe HigginsJoe Higgins (Dublin West, Socialist Party)
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——who are distressed, worried and uncertain about their future and in the interests of human rights, give this handful of people from a war-torn country leave to remain in this State?

Deputies:

Hear, hear.

Photo of Bertie AhernBertie Ahern (Taoiseach; Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)
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I am sure the Minister is well aware of the circumstances. We have completely transformed this area of Irish law and administration to meet all our international obligations. We will continue to address the challenges of migration management on an ongoing basis including tackling illegal immigration. We are putting a huge amount of resources into the provision of accommodation and into a system of fairness. The asylum determination system here compares with the best in the world in terms of fairness of decision making, determination structures, support services for asylum seekers including access to legal advice and to assistance. It provides comprehensive health, welfare, legal and translation services to applicants which are equal to the best anywhere. We have put in place three separate offices, the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner, the Refugee Appeals Tribunal and the Reception Integration Agency to deal with all aspects of asylum applications, from the initial decision to appeal to co-ordinate accommodation and other support needs. That process is open to these individuals and to every individual. Everyone who has looked at our system regards it as fair. If, as announced by the Deputy, these people may be subject to persecution and all else that the Deputy outlines, those issues will be considered in a fair manner, as are other cases.

Photo of Joe HigginsJoe Higgins (Dublin West, Socialist Party)
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Anybody is at risk of persecution if he or she is sent back to a country that is absolutely ravaged by war, internal strife, war lords and other evils. The Minister for Foreign Affairs was in the United States recently where he implored the United States Government for leave for some tens of thousands of our fellow citizens to remain in the US on human compassion grounds. I support that request. Those citizens should not be forced to come back here when they have made new lives for themselves in the US and they should be allowed to stay. Can we then not give to a few hundred people, who would be forced back to a much different situation than the Irish coming back here, leave to remain here and to make a new life, in the interests of human rights? As a further contribution to human rights for the Afghanis and everyone else, it is incumbent on the Taoiseach to investigate the CIA planes that have been using Shannon on their way to Guantanamo or Afghanistan. My last word on Afghanistan is that any country that tolerates secret CIA prisons where torture is practised is not a country to which this State should deport people or to which we should or send anybody back.

Photo of Bertie AhernBertie Ahern (Taoiseach; Dublin Central, Fianna Fail)
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As I have stated, our system is extremely transparent and is open to appeal. In September the head of the UNHCR publicly congratulated us in New York on our system at the summit meeting and said it was extremely fair. That system takes into account and makes provision for people who have suffered torture or are suspected to have suffered torture or to have had their rights infringed. Our system has allowed large numbers of people to stay in Ireland who have been through the process. We have accommodated of the order of 35,000 people in recent years under our system. The cases the Deputy raised must go through the system. I will not make a judgment on them but if the issues the Deputy raised are true, their cases will be examined fairly. It is a fair system.