Thursday, 19 October 2006
Question 4: To ask the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources if, further to the decision by the Ombudsman to investigate the way the lost at sea scheme was handled, he will authorise an internal investigation into the scheme, including into the issues of the way files on a boat (details supplied) came to be misplaced and into the reason no assessment of costs was carried out prior to the introduction of the scheme; if he will ensure that his Department co-operates fully with the Ombudsman's investigation; the measures taken to address the issue following the Ombudman's report in May 2006 that the scheme, which saw 75% of funding being allocated to a single constituency, was deficient and flawed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [33725/06]
The lost at sea scheme was introduced in June 2001, following consultation with the fishing industry representative organisations, to enable qualifying applicants under the scheme to receive replacement capacity in respect of fishing boats lost at sea between 1980 and the establishment of the Fishing Boat Register in 1990. The closing date for receipt of applications was 31 December 2001.
In January 2003, over 12 months after the closing date, an application under the scheme was received in the Department from a particular applicant, the subject of Deputy Perry's question.
In December 2004, the Office of the Ombudsman wrote to the Department indicating that it was examining a complaint from this applicant on their application under the lost at sea scheme and seeking specified information. The Department provided full information and documentation required.
In February 2006, the Ombudsman wrote to the Department stating that she was going to carry out a formal investigation into the application and requesting certain files, which the Department duly provided. On 13 July 2006, the Ombudsman invited the Department to comment on the statement of complaint. The Department returned comments on 31 July 2006. It is clear that the investigation by the Ombudsman is ongoing and that the Department has fully co-operated with the investigation at all times. For obvious reasons, it would not be appropriate for me to require the Department to initiate an internal investigation while the Ombudsman's investigations are still ongoing. However, I will give serious consideration to the Ombudsman's report on the conclusion of her investigation.
How can the Minister of State explain that senior civil servants expressly stated the view, in announcing this scheme, that it would open the floodgates? How is it possible that two persons, both constituents of the then Minister, Deputy Fahey, received 75% of the funding allocated, which was a substantial amount of money?
Does the Minister of State agree with the Ombudsman that the scheme was seriously flawed? The Ombudsman wrote that, accordingly, her office reverted to the Department requesting it outline how it proposes to deal with the matter.
There were 120 files and eight files which the then Minister, according to a handwritten note from him, wanted ring-fenced. Of the six files where there was payment, four were from within his own constituency.
This is a serious matter. It is a complete cover-up. Never in the history of the State has such a report issued from the Ombudsman clearly indicating the compliance of the Department and of senior servants in a cover-up on this scale.
There was no cover-up. Some 67 applications were received and six were successful. The Ombudsman wrote on behalf of a specific applicant and we in the Department have fully co-operated with the Ombudsman's request for information, files and documentation.
I can assure Deputy Perry that the Ombudsman's investigation is not complete. Deputy Perry stated in his question that it was complete but it is still ongoing. I can assure the Deputy that our Department will continue to work in co-operation with the Ombudsman. There is a perception that the Ombudsman is investigating the scheme. The Ombudsman is investigating the specific allegation that was made by one applicant and we are co-operating fully with the Ombudsman in this issue.
The Ombudsman is investigating the allegation that this scheme was, as she has stated, seriously flawed. It was closed down within 24 weeks. The Byrne family lost a father and a son and three members of the crew, and it was quite extraordinary that the Department did not have the file on this.
There were 120 files. Senior civil servants advised the then Minister, Deputy Fahey, that he should not have announced this scheme, but he wanted this scheme to be ring-fenced to between six to eight files and 75% of the funding allocated went to two of his constituents.
This has been in the public domain time and time again. Is the Minister of State saying that when the Ombudsman reports this matter will be dealt with decisively? This scheme was dealing retrospectively, from 1980 onwards, with vessels lost at sea. It was quite extraordinary that the Department did not have a record of one of the biggest losses off the Irish coast; the family had not been contacted and the announcement was concealed. This case must be dealt with decisively. It is extraordinary that we must go to the Ombudsman to deal with this case when the Minister should be dealing with it.
The Ombudsman made a request on behalf of a specific applicant to the Department. We did not ask the Ombudsman to investigate it.
When the Ombudsman, who is the most independent person in the country, is investigating a complaint, it would not be for me to carry out an internal investigation at the same time. What I am saying to Deputy Perry is that the Ombudsman's investigation is ongoing, we should wait until her final report is available to the Department and, as I stated at the outset, I will give serious consideration to Ombudsman's report when it becomes available to me.