Dáil debates

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Ceisteanna - Questions - Priority Questions

Milk Quota

9:40 am

Photo of Martin FerrisMartin Ferris (Kerry North-West Limerick, Sinn Fein)
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2. To ask the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine further to Question No. 480 of 22 September 2015, the reason, having considered all the facts, he and his Department have not recommended prosecution in this case. [34452/15]

Photo of Martin FerrisMartin Ferris (Kerry North-West Limerick, Sinn Fein)
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On 4 June 2014, the Minister initiated an investigation into a milk producer having his milk collection accredited to another milk supplier. The Minister was also investigating whether the activity was being facilitated by a senior milk producer. In reply to a question that I tabled on 22 September 2015, the Minister initially stated that he was getting the Chief State Solicitor to investigate the matter. In his reply to me, the Minister said, "Having regard to an opinion from the Chief State Solicitor’s Office, and having considered all of the facts, the recommendation from my Department is that on balance, a prosecution is not warranted in this instance." Will the Minister explain the opinion from the Chief State Solicitor and why no prosecution is taking place in this case?

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Minister, Department of Agriculture, the Marine and Food; Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. My Department has carried out an investigation into allegations that milk collections from a milk supplier were credited to another milk supplier and that this was being facilitated by the milk purchaser concerned. Having received the report on the investigation, I instructed that a number of corrective actions be undertaken by all parties concerned, including the reallocation of milk to the original supplier and the payment of the superlevy fine by the supplier concerned. All such corrective actions were completed within the relevant milk quota year, and the end-of-year annual declaration for the milk producers concerned reflected the adjusted and correct position.

In addition to requiring the above actions, I also instructed that the relevant papers be sent to the Chief State Solicitor's office for advice on whether offences had been committed and, if so, the possibility and likelihood of a successful prosecution. The Chief State Solicitor's office subsequently appointed a prosecuting counsel to examine the facts of the case and this counsel’s report was forwarded to my Department. My Department subsequently met the senior counsel to discuss the report. Having regard to counsel’s opinion and to all the circumstances in this case, my Department recommended that a prosecution should not be pursued and I accepted this recommendation.

In making its recommendation, my Department took a number of matters into account, including the likelihood of a successful prosecution given the details of the case and the standard of proof required, the fact there was no financial gain for any of the parties concerned, the fact the parties’ obligations under the milk quota regulations had ultimately been met, that all superlevies due were paid in full and, most important, that there was no financial loss to other farmers, the Exchequer or to the EU. My Department is completing a full compliance verification audit of the processor concerned.

Photo of Martin FerrisMartin Ferris (Kerry North-West Limerick, Sinn Fein)
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I do not understand how a milk producer 110 miles away from Clongowes Wood supplied Clongowes Wood with 500,000 litres of milk which in turn supplied Glanbia and the outcome of all this was that no prosecution took place. What is quite clear to me is that there was sleight of hand with 500,000 litres of milk being transferred 110 miles to Clongowes Wood which in turn sold that milk to Glanbia. The architects of this were a manager in Clongowes Wood and a manager in Glanbia. It is only when this came to light through John Mooney in The Sunday Timesnewspaper that an investigation was initiated. The investigation lasted 15 months, from June 2014 to September 2015. It is clear that here was an attempt to commit fraud which was successful until it was brought to light and an investigation took place. The Minister has not clarified whether the Chief State Solicitor said that a prosecution should have taken place. We do not know that.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Minister, Department of Agriculture, the Marine and Food; Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I was also concerned about this case.

As soon as I heard about it, we initiated an investigation straight away. There were multiple interviews, some of them taken under caution. The matter was taken extremely seriously by my Department. The investigation has not been going on for 14 or 15 months. We had a very intensive investigation initially, as soon as we heard about this case. We needed to get to the bottom of it and we did get to the bottom of what was happening. When we completed our investigation, we sent the file then to the Office of the Chief State Solicitor. I instructed that the case would go to the Chief State Solicitor's office because I wanted an opinion from outside the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine as I felt the case merited that. The Chief State Solicitor's office asked a senior counsel to look at the matter. A report was made to us and we had a meeting on the back of that in the Department. I must go on the basis of the legal advice and recommendations I get.

Having said that, we did not leave it at that. Actions have been taken on the back of this and superlevies have been paid. We have undertaken a full audit and got a full report from the processor concerned in terms of how this could have happened and to ensure it cannot happen again. A lot has taken place in a very firm way. This should not have happened. I was very unhappy that it did happen and I made that view very strongly known to everybody concerned. We had a full investigation on what happened, who was involved and how it could have happened. We also referred the matter to the Chief State Solicitor's office for it to take a look at it. From our perspective, we have taken the matter as seriously as we could have and we have taken the appropriate action on the basis of the legal advice received.

9:50 am

Photo of Martin FerrisMartin Ferris (Kerry North-West Limerick, Sinn Fein)
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I am informed that the initial producer was and still is on the board of Glanbia. The levies that were repaid were retrospective and were only paid when the individual was caught out. It is a classic case of a fraudulent attempt to get away with more than €300,000 worth of milk, some 5.5 million litres.

It is more than a year since I first raised the matter. In fairness, I have been corresponding with the Minister through parliamentary questions and by other means. In June of this year, the Minister had still not heard back from the Chief State Solicitor's office. In response to another parliamentary question on 22 September, I learned that the Minister had received a reply from the Chief State Solicitor's office. There was a reference to "having regard to his opinion". What was the opinion of the Chief State Solicitor's office? Did the office suggest proceeding with a prosecution? The situation is that somebody on the board of a major processing company in this country was a party to a fraud involving €300,000. It is very damaging for the entire industry that people would be allowed to get away with that.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Minister, Department of Agriculture, the Marine and Food; Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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First, people did not get away with it.

Photo of Martin FerrisMartin Ferris (Kerry North-West Limerick, Sinn Fein)
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Retrospective payments were made but there was no sanction.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Minister, Department of Agriculture, the Marine and Food; Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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What happened is that a concern was raised and we investigated it immediately. We interviewed people under caution without notice. We took a very serious view of what we understood to be the situation. The investigation happened straight away. The investigation has not taken 14 months; it took place straight away and was concluded within weeks but we then handed over the file to the Chief State Solicitor's office who looked at it from a legal perspective, which is a different perspective, and asked that the office would come back to us with a recommendation as to whether we were likely to secure a prosecution. I had to make a decision on the basis of that advice.

Photo of Martin FerrisMartin Ferris (Kerry North-West Limerick, Sinn Fein)
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Who made the decision?

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Minister, Department of Agriculture, the Marine and Food; Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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Having taken the actions we could take to remedy the situation, to fully audit the processor concerned and to get a full and detailed account from the processor concerned of how its systems could have allowed that to happen, we took all the actions we could. I have taken legal advice on the basis of the Chief State Solicitor's legal advice as to whether we were likely to succeed in taking a prosecution and I have taken my decision on the back of that. It is that straightforward.