I have a number of private notice questions. First, the subject matter of the questions to the Minister for Agriculture is rather similar in the case of Deputy Joe Sherlock and Deputy Paul Connaughton. I will call first Deputy Sherlock to put his question.
Private Notice Questions. - Agricultural Export Refunds.
asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food if, in view of the serious implications for Irish agriculture and especially for our food exports, he will outline the investigation which his Department have conducted into allegations contained in the recently leaked interim report of the EC Court of Auditors; the reason his Department have not yet responded to the report although it is reported to have been submitted five months ago; and if he will make a statement on the matter.
asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food when his Department received the allegations from the EC Court of Auditors concerning malpractice on the part of Irish dairy product exporters; if such allegations were made known officially to Bórd Bainne or to the dairy processors named in the allegations; the reason the allegations were not answered before now and if the Minister will acknowledge that the media statement made by the Court of Auditors is the normal procedure in the circumstances.
With your permission, Sir, I propose to take the questions from Deputy Sherlock and Deputy Connaughton together.
The report in question contains the preliminary observations of the European Court of Auditors following a series of visits to Ireland in the period January to June 1990 in relation to export refund transactions involving firms in the Irish dairy sector. These visits were part of the Court's continuing inquiry into export refunds involving a programme of audits of export transactions in eight member states.
In accordance with established procedures, to enable the Court to prepare a formal report, preliminary observations were conveyed to my Department in two letters received in the normal way through the Comptroller and Auditor General in early June and early July.
The letters indicated various issues which the Courts of Auditors asked to be looked at and accordingly asked the Irish authorities to carry out a further in depth investigation. The investigation was put in hand without delay by my Department and by the Office of the Revenue Commissioners who have primary responsibility for verifying the eligibility of products for export refunds. The Irish authorities furnished some information to the court in early August and informed the court that while the investigation of the various issues was progressing the nature of the investigation was such that it would take some considerable time to bring it to a conclusion.
I can assure the House that every effort has been made to ensure that there is no undue delay. The investigation which is extensive and wideranging is nearing completion and a full and comprehensive response will be sought and furnished to the courts. The investigative work involved the scrutiny of the commercial and other documentation supporting the declarations made by the claimant for export refunds.
As I have already stated, the observations of the court are of a preliminary nature and, in accordance with the procedure of my Department and of the Court, were not divulged to any party until the Department and the Revenue Commissioners had an opportunity to investigate the issues and assess whether and to what extent they were well founded. In this we are complying with the request of the Court which, in its communications with the Comptroller and Auditor General had asked that these preliminary findings be treated as confidential and that they be not divulged to anyone. The authorities have strictly adhered to this requirement. I therefore regret the disclosures which appeared in the media in recent days, since they put a number of private firms in the dock in respect of adverse comments against which they were not in a position to defend themselves and which, following full investigation, may not be found to be correct or significant.
I would just mention that during the course of most of my reply the sound facilities seem to have been off.
I have apologised to the House already for the defects in controlling the system. I would hope that these matters will be corrected very quickly. We do have teething troubles with this apparatus. We must have a little patience.
We still have the official reporters who will take everything down.
Arising from the Minister's reply may I ask if the Minister could be more specific as to when a response will be produced by the Department and if there is any question that an interim preliminary response will be provided? Let me further ask the Minister what steps he is taking to reassure customers at home and abroad about the quality of Irish dairy products at this time.
As I have already indicated in my reply, we have in fact furnished interim preliminary replies. I have also indicated in my reply that a full and comprehensive report, which involves collating information from both the Revenue Commissioners and my Department, will be sent very shortly. I do not propose to comment further on the basis of reactions to a report which was leaked outside of the established and proper procedure existing between my Department, the Revenue Commissioners, the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Court of Auditors.
I hope the Minister's version is right because it is certainly at variance with that of the official from the Court of Auditors who gave the interview. He clearly signalled that they got no official report even though they had been looking for it for five months from the Department. I want the Minister to put what he has said on record. There must be something very wrong when it is five months since the Department got the official query on the allegations which are extremely serious.
Why is it that An Bord Bainne, who have overall responsibility, were not informed long before now about the seriousness of those allegations? They are the people at the coal face, yet I understand they were not told officially about this. Somehow or other only 14 days ago unofficial contact was made with them. I would like the Minister to clear that up because it is extremely important.
As I have already indicated, the procedures of the Court of Auditors require that all preliminary information and observations be kept entirely confidential. This was confirmed in letters which they addressed to the counterpart authority here, namely, the Comptroller and Auditor General who, in turn, conveys those queries to the departments or authorities directly concerned, in this instance, the Revenue Commissioners and the Department of Agriculture and Food. Accordingly, it is not open to the Department of Agriculture and Food nor to the Revenue Commissioners to disclose the nature or content of these preliminary observations which are simply preparatory to enabling the court to prepare its report. We have in this, as in all other things, adhered diligently and properly to those procedures.
I regret the fact that, because there have been adverse comments made publicly in respect of some enterprises and of Bord Bainne, Bord Bainne have been called on to reply to comments which they were not in a position to deal with adequately because the whole procedure is that a final report be presented.
In regard to the implication that my Department or the Customs Authorities have been less than diligent in dealing with the matter, let me explain the timetable. We issued preliminary observations, the last of which was in August. We indicated then that the nature of the queries was such as to involve detailed study before issuing a final comprehensive reply. Let me stress that we have not issued any final or comprehensive reply. I wanted to clarify that matter in view of what Deputy Connaughton has said. Let me also say at this point that it is recognised, in this as in other things, that the attitude of the Irish authorities in terms of co-operation compares very favourably to that of other member states.
May I ask the Minister a brief supplementary? Arising from the reply he has given and referring to the interim report of the EC Court of Auditors, which must give rise to concern about the various allegations that have been made, what steps is the Minister taking in the interest of his own Department and of Irish dairy produce?
Let me assure Deputy Sherlock that it is a matter of priority at all times that my Department would vindicate and advance the reputation of our dairy and beef sectors. That is a continuing obligation and will remain so. I also want to say to Deputy Sherlock that I do not see that it would be appropriate or right for me or for any member of the Government to respond to a leaked version of observations outside of the established procedures. I do not intend to do that. I have explained the procedures. It is not for me to comment on comment.
If there has been comment in the press and on radio and so on, it is not my function to reply to those comments. The only public observation I would make is that the House and all the authorities concerned can be assured that whatever action is required on the part of the Minister, the Revenue authorities or the Comptroller and Auditor General will be taken when the report is furnished.
I am less than impressed with the Minister's side of the story.
I did not think you would be, but that is your problem.
Deputy Connaughton, I asked you to be brief.
It will be very short. At the beginning I asked the Minister to inform the House as to when he was officially notified by the Court of Auditors but he did not give the exact date. He avoided that question. Finally, does the Minister not think it is a bit much that, for what is literally a time bomb in so far as our exports are concerned, he would leave an item like this hanging around for five months without an answer? How long would it have taken to answer it in the normal course of events?
It would help if Deputy Connaughton, in raising queries, was both accurate and responsible. In this he is being neither. First, my reply indicated the precise dates — I mentioned particularly early July, and that is not five months ago as the Deputy will appreciate.
The official from the Court of Auditors said five months were involved.
I can only answer for the responsibility I have.
Obviously there is a variance of opinion about that.
That is your statement.
I would ask that we move on with the business. We cannot have a duel all day on this matter.
I do not know what the second query was but it does not seem to be based on fact either. I want to assure the House that what I have put on the record today——
The question was, why you delayed so long with it?
I have one regret in relation to this matter and that is that because the long-established procedures have not been pursued in terms of a leakage that has emerged, companies and others who are not in a position to respond to public comment have been put at a disadvantage and perhaps some damage has been done. I very much regret that.