Wednesday, 18 October 2017
Ceisteanna - Questions (Resumed) - Priority Questions
Defence Forces Investigations
29. To ask the Taoiseach and Minister for Defence if a commission of investigation into serious allegations of an ineffective or non-existent health and safety regime in the Air Corps will be established in view of the fact that a person (details supplied) stated in their report that the allegations made by the three whistleblowers could not be adequately dealt with in the type of informal review they were tasked with carrying out. [44083/17]
Given that the Minister of State has now received the O'Toole investigation report, he is clearly attempting to fudge the issue as the report clearly states that the issues raised by the whistleblowers could not be adequately addressed. In light of this, will the Minister of State now set up an inquiry into the virtually non-existent health and safety regime in the Air Corps? In the past this absence of a regime exposed hundreds of Air Corps members to highly toxic, dangerous, corrosive and cancerous chemicals, compromising their health and possibly causing numerous causes of premature death and disability.
The health and welfare of the men and women of Óglaigh na hÉireann are a priority for me which is why I ensured that protected disclosures alleging exposure to chemical and toxic substances were investigated by an independent third party. The reviewer’s report has indicated that, given the breadth of the remit of the terms of reference, he could only comment in general terms on the Defence Forces' safety regime.
It must be remembered that prior to the receipt of the disclosures, litigation had been initiated in relation to the subject matter of the disclosures. This complicated the approach to be taken in developing any parallel process. Notwithstanding this significant challenge, I put in place just such a parallel process. In light of the legally complex situation, I believe it was appropriate that an experienced legal professional was appointed.
It was the view of the independent reviewer that the courts are best placed to examine issues in relation to allegations which were already subject to litigation. This is particularly so given the historic nature of the complaints and the fact that they potentially affect the reputations and good names of individuals. What the report shows is the difficulty in putting a parallel process to the courts in place. The report also notes that the Health and Safety Authority, HSA, is the appropriate statutory body to deal with such allegations. I have furnished the report to those who made the protected disclosures and, before considering any further steps, I will await their views.
Separately and in parallel to the independent review, following an inspection in 2016, the Air Corps has continued to work with the HSA to improve its health and safety regime. I have been informed by the military authorities that the HSA has formally noted the considerable progress made to date by the Defence Forces towards implementation of a safety management system for the control of hazardous substances. Subject to completion of the improvement plan the HSA investigation is closed. However, it must be noted that in the Air Corps health and safety is a matter of ongoing monitoring, supervision and adjustment.
The courts should not prevent the State or indeed the Minister of State from investigating what we have been discussing here and what has been brought before the courts by a small number of current and former officers. Let me set the scene: a dilapidated mechanics workshop; oil everywhere; carcinogenic chemicals spilt on the floor and around the sink; highly dangerous long-life chemicals poured into the outside grass area; chemicals mixing and causing plumes of toxic smoke; broken equipment; no storage area; and most importantly, no respirators, overalls, gloves and so forth that might be capable of protecting those ordered to handle these dangerous chemicals. On top of this there are no wash facilities so chemically stained clothing is being washed at home in the same load as children's clothes. Men who have been falling around due to inhaling toxic chemicals are disciplined for being off sick; others develop headaches; and finally, most seriously, we get clusters of highly complicated medical conditions, miscarriages and birth defects among those working in such conditions. This is what the whistleblowers asked the Minister of State to look into and this has been going on for years. There was and still seems to be a cover-up here. The health and safety recommendations might have dealt with these working conditions had they only been acted upon at the time.
When will the Minister of State set up the full forensic inquiry deemed necessary by Mr. Christopher O'Toole to establish the veracity of the whistleblowers' statements? Is he going to wait for the courts to force him to act?
This issue has been much discussed here in the last few months, and rightly so. It is an ongoing matter. As I told Deputy Chambers, I met two of the recipients who brought up a range of concerns to me. The respectful treatment of these whistleblowers is something that I have prioritised in the Department. The reviewer has given me a copy of the report which I have in turn passed on to the Defence Forces. I also took legal advice on this report and then sent it on to those who made the protected disclosures. I now await the reviewer's feedback before considering my next move.
The health and welfare of the men and women of the Defence Forces are my absolute priority and I have ensured that protected disclosures alleging exposure to chemical and toxic substances were investigated by an independent third party. It is only fair that we ask an independent party to come on in this and that we give the terms of reference. I specifically looked to have these terms of reference as broad as possible so that the independent reviewer could do his work without being limited in any way.
Earlier the Minister of State called the reviewer in question incompetent for not having raised issues with him. Whatever the reviewer's remit, he seems to have not deemed himself competent to carry out the work and the Minister of State seems to have agreed as no extension or broadening of that remit was sought. If I were to say to the Minister of State that 100 premature deaths were possibly caused by this chemical exposure, would he agree that there is an urgent need for the State to immediately set up an inquiry? There are not 100 cases before the courts, but there are thousands of people who might potentially have been affected by this. These include students who worked in the complex; children, some of whom were in State care when they started in the Air Corps; and officers' families who were also exposed because of chemical transfer. This, surely, is a scandal in need of the kind of investigation that has taken place in other jurisdictions lacking in appropriate health and safety regimes. Will the Minister of State once and for all accept that this is a scandal that needs to be addressed? First and foremost we have to ensure that the survivors of this get the medical care and protection they need immediately, regardless of what is before the courts.
I have every confidence in the independent reviewer. I have never questioned his authority and I do not want Deputy Ó Snodaigh to put words into my mouth in this regard. I have every confidence in the work carried out by the independent reviewer. He is a professional and carried out the review within the terms of reference set out for him.
A number of the issues raised by Deputy Ó Snodaigh are subject to prior litigation. These relate to the period 1991 to 2006.
As such, it would be totally inappropriate for me to comment further on the detail of these cases. The report states that because litigation commenced before the protected disclosures were made, the court system is the appropriate forum for consideration of these historic matters. The view of the independent reviewer was that the courts are the best place to examine these matters. Given the questions involved and the historic nature of the complaints-----
Significantly, it potentially affects the reputations and good names of individuals. When I have the views of those who made the protected disclosures, I will consider any appropriate action. I will take further steps after I have heard back from the people who made the protected disclosures. As I did not want to be accused of hiding behind anything, anybody or any document, I decided to put the independent reviewer's report up on the website for every Deputy in this House to see.
In conclusion, it would have been very easy for me to decide to hold back the report to prevent people from asking questions on this matter. I did not want to do this. I wanted to be very open and transparent and to give people an opportunity to see exactly what the independent reviewer had said.
I do not like to interrupt Deputies when I am in this Chair. We have spent almost 20 minutes on two questions. We have exceeded the amount of time we should have taken by nearly eight minutes. I accept that 40 seconds were lost when clarification was being sought. I timed it. I appeal to the Minister of State and to all other Deputies to try to observe the time limits so we can move on promptly.