Thursday, 4 November 2021
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
Coast Guard Service
92. To ask the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport the action he is taking to address the serious findings of the Comptroller and Auditor General’s investigation into the procurement of vehicles for the Irish Coast Guard; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [53690/21]
I raise the ongoing issues at the Irish Coast Guard, which have been identified. In the first instance, I raise the issue of the report by the Comptroller and Auditor General following the investigation into the procurement of vehicles for the Irish Coast Guard.
A Department internal audit report in 2019 recommended improvements in Coast Guard procurement. Implementation of these recommendations was underway prior to the Comptroller and Auditor General raising the issue of procurement of vehicles in 2020. In particular, new internal controls in accordance with best practice procurement procedures have been put in place. Additional resources have been allocated to the area and training has been enhanced. Insofar as this specific issue is concerned, it was identified as a deviation event through the Coast Guard’s deviation and risk management procedures. A corresponding investigation regarding the suitability of the assets procured in support of cliff rescue operations occurred on 4 February 2020. The recommendations of the Comptroller and Auditor General's report relate to specification of requirements, tendering supply and delivery of vehicles and procurement processes. These recommendations are accepted and are being implemented. The vehicles procured under the contract are currently fulfilling an operational role for the Coast Guard. The vehicles purchased are a considerable improvement on the previous vans in use by cliff rescue teams. This is because they have additional carrying capacity, improved storage of equipment, welfare facilities, air conditioning, dry equipment, additional radios and under chassis sealing. Coast Guard cliff rescue teams continue to rely on multiple vehicle types to respond to cliff incidents. The Coast Guard continues to review procurement procedures on an ongoing basis to ensure that they comply with best practice in the area.
I read the Comptroller and Auditor General's report. It highlighted to me a litany of issues around public procurement in the Irish Coast Guard. There are concerns that need to be taken back to the Department and acted on. The Minister of State will be aware of the range of other issues that have been raised in recent times about the Irish Coast Guard’s governance, structure, culture and morale, as well as a series of allegations which raise concern. I wonder if the Minister of State is aware of those. Has she met with the Irish Coast Guard about them? Has she met with the new group, Irish Coast Guard Volunteers Representative Association, the launch of which her party colleague and mine attended in recent weeks? Their own stated intention is to better the Coast Guard for everybody involved. That is a laudable ambition.
It is important to say that improved procurement procedures have been implemented within the Coast Guard area. In 2019, my Department’s internal audit unit carried out a procurement gap analysis, which identifies a number of areas with significant scope for improvement. The following eight recommendations are contained in the March 2020 audit report: the Irish Coast Guard, IRCG, procurement procedures are to be documented; there is to be better procurement documentation filing and retention; there is to be a live contracts register on finance and procurement SharePoint site; avoid appointment of contractors without competition; improve tender specification costs; improve contract management, contract planning; and carry out evaluations of procurements. These eight recommendations in the internal audit report on Coast Guard procurement were all implemented by the end of November 2020. A procurement manual was finalised in November 2020 which sets out the process from a formal assessment of operational leads to a business case.
Training and procurement workshops are available to all staff involved in the procurement process. The Coast Guard continues to revisit procurement procedures and updates the manual regularly to take into account new guidelines.
I appreciate that response, specifically about the Comptroller and Auditor General and procurement. My follow on question is that I am concerned that the procurement issues were a symptom of potentially wider issues within the Irish Coast Guard. We are hearing clearly about these issues from the new representative group, the Irish Coast Guard Volunteers Representative Association. There was the resignation of volunteers in Doolin in recent days, as well as the standing down of the Coast Guard there. There will be significant implications on the services being provided. It also flags, in my opinion, problems within that service. I ask the Minister of State what actions are being taken. Has she met with the Irish Coast Guard? Has she or will she meet the Irish Coast Guard Volunteers Representative Association which, as I said, wants to deliver a better Coast Guard for everybody involved?
It is critical that we have a robust and well-resourced search and rescue, SAR, capability in Ireland. We are all aware in our own communities of the excellent volunteers who do critical, Trojan work in coming to people’s rescue in their hour of need. It is critical. I am committed to ensuring that whatever resources and supports are needed are in place to ensure that we have continued service.
On the Deputy’s point about Doolin, search and rescue and the Department are engaged in providing whatever supports are necessary to help resolve the situation. We have good management teams right across the country. Where there are challenges, we need to address them. We need to ensure that they are resolved. That is my commitment. I have been liaising with officials in my Department. I will do whatever is needed, the Deputy can be assured, to ensure that we get a resolution. At the moment, however, I have been assured that there is adequate cover. From time to time, certain teams step down for different reasons, such as operational reasons. In those situations, cover is provided elsewhere.
I continue to monitor the situation and I understand the importance of this issue.