Ceisteanna— Questions. Oral Answers. - Customs and Excise Officers Deployment.

16.

asked the Minister for Finance, in relation to the deployment of Customs and Excise officers for the purposes of the EC beef storage scheme (i) the number of such officers who are deployed on these duties, (ii) to whom such officers report and (iii) whether any payment is received from the beef processing industry towards the cost of providing such officers.

48.

asked the Minister for Finance, in relation to alleged irregularities in the beef processing trade and EC beef storage schemes (i) whether officers of Customs and Excise are deployed to monitor and verify storage and movement of beef products (ii) the number of officers who are so deployed, by region (iii) whether the European Commission, Court of Auditors or the Department of Agriculture and Food has requested specific investigations to be carried out by such officers or by the Special Investigation Officers of Customs and Excise (iv) the dates on which such investigations were requested since January 1987 and (v) the outcome of such investigations; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

55.

asked the Minister for Finance, in respect of Customs and Excise officers deployed for the purpose of monitoring EC beef storage schemes in the State, if complaints have been received from such officers that they have been obstructed in the execution of their duties by persons working in beef storage plants; the number of such complaints which have been received since January, 1987; the steps which have been taken to deal with such complaints; and if any criminal or civil proceedings have been instituted in respect of such incidents.

57.

asked the Minister for Finance, in relation to the use of officers of Customs and Excise in EC aided schemes for beef storage and exports in the State (i) the total number of officers carrying out new functions and the locations at which officers are regularly stationed to carry out these duties (ii) the precise functions and powers of such officers (iii) to whom such officers are responsible and to whom they are required to report (iv) whether since January, 1987 there have been any requests for specific inquiries to be carried out by such officers in relation to alleged irregularities in the beef processing, storage and export business and by whom and when such requests were made and whether such inquiries are completed and (v) whether such officers have adequate statutory powers and protection from obstruction; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 16, 48, 55 and 57 together.

The Customs and Excise staff are responsible for the control and certification of beef which qualifies for export refund under the EC Common Agricultural Policy otherwise known as the CAP. Beef may be placed under customs control either at the point of exportation or at traders' premises. The date on which beef is placed under control determines the rate of export refund payable. The certification by Customs and Excise staff of the type and quantity of beef placed under control forms the basis on which payment of export refunds is made by the Department of Agriculture and Food as the paying agency on behalf of the European Commission.

The Customs and Excise staff check the accuracy of declarations made by traders who place goods under control and for this purpose are entitled to carry out physical checks on the beef, to take samples and to check documents. They are also entitled to enter traders' premises to examine beef already placed under control as well as to examine traders' commercial records. Such records are also subject to regular audit by Customs and Excise staff.

The Customs and Excise staff have no function in relation to the EC scheme of aids to private storage and they carry out no controls in respect of that scheme.

There has been no change in the functions of the Customs and Excise staff in relation to the control and certification of beef for export refund purposes. The methods of control are kept under continuous review, however, and are subject to change from time to time to improve their effectiveness or to remedy any actual or potential defects which come to light.

I am informed by the Revenue Commissioners that a breakdown of staff numbers engaged in the control of beef for export refund purposes is not available. Virtually all of the Customs and Excise staff engaged in the control of goods at point of export would have some involvement from time to time in the control of export consignments of CAP goods including beef. Approximately 120 staff are engaged, as part of their duties, in the control of CAP goods at traders' premises. On average, these staff would spend only about 25 per cent of their time on such duties. Some 50 per cent of the staff in question are stationed in the Dublin collection and the balance are located in various customs stations throughout the country.

Control of CAP goods placed under customs control is carried out during visits by Customs and Excise staff to traders' premises. No officers are stationed full-time at such premises. Normally, no charge is raised against the trader for such visits. However, where, exceptionally, officers are required to attend at traders' premises to supervise unpacking or re-packing operations on beef already placed under control, the cost of such attendance is borne by the trader. The Customs and Excise staff are responsible to and report to the Revenue Commissioners.

I am informed by the Commissioners that no requests have been received from any outside agencies for specific inquiries to be carried out by Customs and Excise staff into alleged irregularities in relation to beef placed under control for export. I want to clarify the position in this regard. There has been a request from the Department of Agriculture and Food to the Department of Finance in one situation recently. Apart from that, the outside agencies refered to here are the Court of Auditors, the EC, or others.

I am also informed by the Commissioners that they have no record of any complaint in regard to obstruction of any of their officers by persons working in beef storage plants.

I am satisfied that officers of Customs and excise have adequate statutory powers for the performance of their duties and protection from obstruction. Obstruction of any officer is an offence under the customs Acts which is punishable by a penalty of up to £1,000.

Is the Minister saying to this House that Customs and Excise officers were not involved and have not been involved in any investigation into the APS system?

Is APS private storage?

Yes. Is he saying they have at no time been involved in any sense in any investigation into alleged irregularities in the APS system? In that connection in relation to the one instance in which he stated the Department of Agriculture and Food asked Customs and Excise to become involved, when was that request made by the Department of Agriculture and Food, in respect of what matters was the request made, to whom was it made and how long did it take before a decision was made either by the Minister for Finance or the Revenue Commissioners to comply with that request?

I want to confirm again what I said. The Customs and Excise staff have no function in relation to the EC scheme of aids to private storage and they carry out no controls in respect of that.

No investigation?

They carry out no controls there. However, if you have meat, say, in private storage and it is coming out of private storage to go for export, the Customs and Excise officers have a function.

Now I see.

I do not know what the Deputy is getting at but I want to be clear on the position. Secondly, in relation to the investigation the Deputy spoke about, the Revenue Commissioners have received no request from the European Commission, the European Court of Auditors or any other agency to carry out specific investigations in relation to beef exports. The Department of Agriculture and Food requested last month the co-operation of the Revenue Commissioners in the taking of samples of beef from a number of cold stores and from a vessel at Foynes and the transfer of the beef to a central location for examination. This examination, which was by way of spot check primarily in the context of aid for private storage purposes, is not completed. When the beef comes out they will become involved if the beef is going for export. Is that clear? I have not got the details of when the request the Deputy refers to was made but when I get them I will pass them on to the Deputy.

It appears from the Minister's reply that the request was made last month.

That is right.

And presumably a decision has been made in relation to that request. What was the nature of the decision made? In relation to the involvement of Customs and Excise staff in investigations into the beef industry, is the Minister aware that the European Commission requested the Department of Agriculture and Food here to carry out such an investigation and that the Department of Agriculture and Food said they had not the facilities to do so but that the Customs and Excise branch might? Did that not happen a considerable time ago? I think it was last year. Has the Minister any knowledge of such a request coming from Europe and the Department of Agriculture and Food saying Customs and Excise were the appropriate body to carry out an investigation?

I am sure the Deputy appreciates as well as I do that a request coming from the EC to the Department of Agriculture and Food is a matter for that Department. I would not have any details of it here. The Deputy should address that question to the Minister for Agriculture and Food.

In reply to the other part of the question I want to repeat that the Department of Agriculture and Food requested last month the co-operation of the Revenue Commissioners in the taking of samples of beef from cold stores and from a vessel at Foynes. I do not know what the Deputy is getting at in relation to what decision was taken. The examination is not yet complete.

Is the Minister telling this House that the only requested involvement on the part of Customs and Excise officers in relation to any investigation of any irregularities in the beef export trade, including the APS system, occurred last month and consisted of one single transaction at Foynes harbour? That is what I seem to understand but if there is some wider truth the Minister is not telling me and which I seem to be missing, perhaps he will tell me about it.

Let me clarify. There was one request from the Department of Agriculture and Food last month, as I am informed in this brief from the Revenue Commissioners, but there is a difference between where Customs and Excise staff come in and at what stage they come in. I do not want the Deputy to get the wrong end of the stick in relation to that. They have no control in relation to private storage. I have no knowledge of any other request that would come from that Department.

Deputy Desmond and Deputy Noonan are offering. Perhaps they will be brief. I have dwelt overlong on this question.

How does the Minister reconcile his statement to us today with the fact that the Customs and Excise staff, on a unilateral and public basis, had to approach the Commission services and the officers visiting Ireland to convey their grave concern about exports coming out of the APS scheme? Surely both they and the Revenue Commissioners are more than aware of what occurred on those occasions. How does the Minister reconcile the bland brief with the reality of what is going on?

The Deputy should have listened to exactly what I said. I said I am advised by the Revenue Commissioners, to whom Customs and Excise report, on the facts as I have stated in this House. If the Deputy wants to disagree with those for——

Is the Minister taking any responsibility in regard to the truth of this matter?

If he has any information to the contrary I ask him please to supply it and I will have it fully investigated.

The relevant trade union officers of the unions of the officers concerned, both trade unions, were constrained to go public and confirm the serious concern of their members and that, apparently, is nowhere recorded in the Minister's brief.

Relevant trade union information seems to circulate personally to Deputy Desmond. It does not come freely to me, but if he wants to impart that information to me I will be only too delighted to take it up with the relevant authorities who are the Revenue Commissioners.

I happen to believe those public servants.

(Limerick East): Has the Minister a figure in his brief for the total amount of money arising out of the APS which has been paid in the most recent year for which the Minister has figures available?

It is not part of the question.

It seems to be a separate question.

I do not think I saw any figures in it. I have not got any here.

(Limerick East): Can the Minister get them from the Department of Agriculture and Food for me?

Question No. 17.

I hope we get the right statement. Make sure it is properly vetted.

This thing is being flogged to death. Deputy Desmond is going nowhere with it. You have to know when to stop something.