asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food, in relation to the £300 million of securities held by his Department in relation to beef export refund operations as mentioned in his reply to parliamentary questions on 12 April 1989, the proportion of those securities which has been held for longer than one year; the proportion held for longer than two years; and the proportion held for longer than three years.
Ceisteanna — Questions. Oral Answers. - Beef Export Refund.
Of the total securities at present held by my Department in relation to beef export refund operations 12 per cent are held between one and two years, 9 per cent between two and three years and 6 per cent for longer than three years.
Where exports take place within a reasonable time of bonding and where documentation is lodged promptly and found to be in order, securities would normally be held for about 12 to 15 months.
Will the Minister confirm that in respect of one company, arising from an investigation carried out by the relevant authorities, bank guarantees to the order of approximately £18 million are being withheld by his Department for whom he is responsible since the end of the 1986 season, and that in the case of another company, again because of suspected irregularities, close on £40 million in bank guarantees have been withheld since the end of last season? What are the requirements that must be fulfilled before the guarantees withheld for more than two years are discharged?
I am sure the Deputy is well aware from his period in Government that it has been long established practice under successive Governments not to discuss the individual affairs of any company in this House. I propose to adhere to that long established practice which I assume the Deputy in his time in Government was aware of and may even have practised.
As regards the procedures in relation to how the securities are held, of the total of £84 million being held at the moment, approximately £4 million is held arising from investigations into irregularities, and that will be declared forfeit if the Department should decide to take the effective action. The balance of £80 million is held for a variety of reasons — mainly documentation, including a series of technical requirements, lodging of effective information at the appropriate date, technical theories raised by the Department in relation to the particulars on the import proof submitted and on the export documentation, spot checks by the Department on the authenticity of the import proof submitted, requests by the Department for additional proofs in certain cases — which are standard practice here and in other countries.
Would the Minister accept that on the basis of the figures he has given, namely that 15 per cent of guarantees are being held for more than two years and the figure is around £50 million now, it is quite extraordinary that a sum of £50 million in guarantees should be mandatorily withheld by his Department and that that withholding could be only on foot of a quite exceptional reason, namely fraudulent irregularities?
I am sorry to tell the Deputy that this is his latest attempt to imply publicly a degree of extraordinary irregularity in Ireland as distinct from other countries. What he says is not true. As is normal, the Department are holding in excess of £300 million in securities against beef export refund operations at present in any event, and the bulk of that amount is held in respect of advance payments made since October 1988 for which neither the full export documentation nor proof of import into third countries has yet been submitted. The figure I gave was in respect of securities held for longer than one year. I have given the total breakdown to the Deputy and I think it demonstrates that if £4 million of that total amount is held arising from an investigation into irregularities, it does not demonstrate the result the Deputy would suggest and which could, if it were true, do major damage to a very major industry.
I am very pleased to tell the House that when the EC conducted their regular audit as part of their regular exercise in every country, they invited members of my Department to join them on audit surveys they were conducting in other countries before they came here. Incidentally, I might tell Deputy Desmond that, contrary to the implication he was trying to convey, the auditors came here only as a consequence of matters he raised publicly in the House. The arrangement was made in accordance with standard provision long before his first public statement making the kind of implications he made here.
Let me repeat my question to the Minister.
I dissuade the Deputy from repetition.
May I briefly put the question? An amount of £45 million——
That is not a question.
——is being withheld by the Minister's Department, namely 15 per cent of £300 million, for a period of two years from companies——
The Deputy seems to be imparting information rather than seeking it. That is not the procedure we adopt at Question Time. Questions please.
I am asking if that figure is true. I ask the Minister to confirm that these moneys would only be withheld on foot of quite exceptional decisions taken by his Department——
The Deputy has already made that point.
——and by the Commission services——
I will once and for all nail Deputy Desmond's implication. We reported the irregularities to the Commission, but all of them had taken place when Deputy Desmond and Deputy Spring were in Government.
That is not the issue.
It was the issue the Deputy tried to cloud at one time. Now he knows and the public know the full truth. In respect of what he is now trying to say, because of the huge trade our beef industry is doing — and we hope it will expand——
They did not crawl——
I did not say that — the total amount is in the normal course——
We are moving to words which should not be used lightly in this House.
The Minister should stand up and admit it.
The bulk of the £300 million is held in respect of advance payments made since last October, a very brief period. The rest are held for a variety of reasons as have been mentioned and I gave them to the House — technical queries, spot checks by the Department, requests for additional proof — and they cannot be released at any time until all certificates are cleared.
Not two years in each case. The Deputy may have his own extraordinary reasons for trying to imply that even what happened when he was in Government——
The issue is why the Minister is holding on to the money.
The issue is why Deputy Desmond and Deputy Spring were not so loud then they were in Government.
Could I ask the Minister——
Question No. 12. If you want to debate this matter you had better find another time. Question Time is not the appropriate time for it.
It is difficult to find another venue to debate it.
I will hear brief supplementaries from Deputy Spring and Deputy McGahon.
Is the Minister expecting us to believe that it is merely a matter of correcting documentation, rectifying little errors or requiring further information to deal with some £18 million which has been withheld by the Department for over three years, the sum of £27 million which has been withheld for between two and three years and the remainder for over one year? Is the Minister saying that neither he nor the people involved in this industry have the competence to get these documents sorted out so that the money can be paid out? Is it merely a matter of documentation being rectified or is there, as is the suspicion, serious fraud involved in most of these matters?
I am not saying what Deputy Spring says I am saying.
The Minister is implying it.
I am not implying it. The Deputy can put his own words on anything he wishes but that does not make them fact, as has been demonstrated very clearly recently. Some of the bonds are held in respect of a period when Deputy Spring had responsibility in Government. I will repeat the information so that Deputy Spring and Deputy Desmond cannot distort the reality. They are held for a variety of reasons mainly involving documentation, including non-receipt to date in the Department of the prescribed import proofs and/or other documentation; technical queries raised by the Department in relation to the particulars in the import proofs submitted and/or the export documentation; spot checks by the Department on the authenticity of the import proofs submitted; and requests by the Department for additional proofs and documents in certain cases in relation to exports to certain countries. While it is possible that documentation reconciliation may lead to forfeiture in some of these cases, it is not possible to quantify the level, if any, of such forfeiture in the absence of finalisation of all the documents. I am referring, of course, to import proofs from other countries in respect of which export refunds cannot become fully payable until all the necessary documentation has been certified from the other countries. Some other countries may not always have immediate and effective ways of dealing with that. The indications and the figures I have mentioned are not such as are capable of the interpretation that Deputy Spring and Deputy Desmond would like to put on them.
In relation to money withheld, how many companies are involved? In view of the fact that one particular company's name was mentioned here repeatedly, does the Minister not feel it fair to mention the names of the other companies involved?
The Deputy will know my position in respect of naming any companies. I do not propose to name any further companies now. I do not know whether there is an overlap in this instance. In respect of securities held for between one and two years, 15 traders are involved, while in respect of securities held for two and three years 13 traders are involved. Eleven traders are involved in respect of securities held for longer than three years. I believe there is an overlap in those figures.
Would the Minister ensure, without taking from the seriousness of this matter or the seriousness of the allegations that have been made, that any information released is released on a general basis in respect of all firms under investigation and that there should be no question of selective information being released to individuals in respect of individual firms? If any information is to be released, his Department should have a practice of releasing uniform information in respect of all firms under investigation and of all spot checks so that there would be no discrimination in these matters.
The Deputy can willingly have that assurance. It has been long established practice under successive Governments not to release details of individual firms and such information as I will release will be in accordance with that long established practice. Because of the very close liaison we have with the Commission of the European Communities in respect of this area, recommendations which the Department of Agriculture and Food recently made to the Commission in respect of monitoring, control and regulation have been greatly welcomed by the Commission, not in respect of Ireland but in respect of putting an overall comprehensive control in place. The controls and checks here are as good as the best in Europe. To ensure that the industry which is vital to this country will advance further we guarantee that such level of irregularity as does emerge will be dealt with severely.
Would the Minister agree that the partial and inadequate statements issued by him in regard to the initial allegations have themselves done considerable damage and do not comply with the laudable principles he has just put forward?
Of course I do not agree.
May I have a brief final supplementary?
I have given the Deputy a lot of latitude but I will allow a brief question.
I did not get this opportunity on rural development.
Prior to Deputy Bruton's intervention the Minister was repeating his earlier statement in relation to the reasons for the withholding of these payments. They basically fell into a number of categories.
A brief question, please.
I want to explain to the Minister in detail so that he can give us a reply.
Detail must be for another time.
The Minister referred to documentation, technical questions and spot checks in relation to authenticity. Can the Minister inform us as to the likelihood of these issues ever being satisfied? If they have not been satisfied within three years, what is the likelihood of their ever being satisfied? What conclusion are we to arrive at in the event of failure to satisfy what the Minister describes as technical problems?
I have no doubt that each case will reach a satisfactory conclusion from the point of view of regulation, supervision and control. In the normal case with the most expeditious procedure where documentation would be lodged promptly and found to be in order, securities would be held for 12 to 15 months. If that would be the most expeditious timetable, I hope Deputies will realise that the implications they are trying to raise if the period is two years or over are not well founded.
The beginning of the year in question was a time when Deputy Desmond and Deputy Spring could have done something about it instead of making noise.