I believe it would be very valuable to Deputy Yates if he very carefully read the transcript of what he has just said. He has analysed the problem very well. He pointed out that there can be a gap between a public sworn inquiry, where there is an allocation of blame etc., and an investigation by an inspector of my Department. When one looks at the gap one can see that it arises because of matters such as confidentiality. Are people going to give an inspector the information which he or she may require or will they only give it in the case of a full legal inquiry where all their interests are protected by the relevant people who are there to look after them and where they feel certain that regardless of the outcome their interests will be properly and duly protected? That is one approach. It is a very costly and time consuming approach.
If one does not follow that approach then one has to follow an administrative or policy approach. If you take a policy approach you have to ask for people's co-operation. Deputies have asked why the confidentiality aspect should be respected as it is a matter of public interest, importance and safety. If the people concerned decide that they are not prepared to give information unless it is on a respected policy basis then one will not get to the root of the problem which, as Deputy Yates spelt out very clearly, is to find out first and foremost the cause of the accident. The Deputy is quite right. The Department of the Marine are not in the position of allocating blame to anybody. Their task and the task of the legislation is to establish clearly the cause of such accidents, to protect the public and ensure that that is done immediately. There is no point blaming the people who are involved. I know Deputy Yates and others did not set out to blame anybody in particular, but there is a suggestion that somebody is covering up or hiding something. The people concerned will outline the traditional views and the traditional advice that is given to a Minister who is in the position to deal responsibly with reports.
Deputy Yates would get full marks for pointing out that reports undertaken by the Department of the Marine staff are primarily a safety review. That is the first objective. These reports are undertaken to identify quickly the causes of an accident. In compiling such reports Department of the Marine staff take statements on a confidential basis in an effort to ensure that witnesses contribute freely to safety investigations, especially in cases where negligence or a disregard for basic safety measures has been a cause of the tragedy. In those circumstances there is a great likelihood that people will be reluctant to give information unless it is on a confidential basis. It would, therefore, be a breach of faith if, after such undertakings were given, the Minister or the Department disclosed the information to a third party. Such disclosure could, it is feared, prejudice the willingness of witnesses to speak freely in the aftermath of future marine casualities. Release of such reports or the statements on which they are based would, therefore, be contrary to the public good. They would not serve the purpose to which Deputy Yates spelt out so eloquently as being the first purpose of the investigator on behalf of the Department and the people operating from that Department. There are various other good reasons given, which would be the traditional position established over a long period.
I am sorry Deputy Yates was not here last week when we discussed Committee Stage. I accept that we cannot all be here all the time, but I went a fair distance on that occasion, particularly in relation to the current case. I spelt out the difficulty in relation to the mv Kilkenny and the mv Hasselwerder and gave an undertaking to publish the report of the findings of the investigation. That is a major step forward and, as Deputy O'Sullivan said, is a break with tradition. I want to proceed with caution, with due consideration and in a responsible way.
On Committee Stage the three Opposition spokespersons called on me to release the reports of marine accident investigations. On that occasion I was sympathetic to the view that marine accident investigation reports should be made available to the House and to the general public, there are good policy reasons this has not been the practice heretofore but notwithstanding these, the time has come to alter policy in this area. I wish, therefore, to announce to the House that on an experimental basis my Department will, unless legally debarred from so doing, release a report of marine accident investigations undertaken by the Department of the Marine. This is being done to allay public concern reflected by Deputies from all sides of the House for greater disclosure in the interest of maritime safety.
This new policy will have implications for the conduct of inquiries by the marine surveyors of my Department. Work has already begun to devise a new modus operandi for future investigations. I would like to make it clear that this new policy will apply to the Kilkenny-Hasselwerder collision of November last and to all subsequent marine accident investigations conducted by the Department. However, as earlier investigations were conducted under different circumstances with certain guarantees of confidentiality being given, the new policy will not have retrospective effect. After a trial period the chief surveyor of my Department will be asked to advise on the extent, if any, to which the new policy impeded the primary aim of marine accident investigation, that is to establish the cause of an accident and set about preventing its recurrence.
Deputies should be aware that there will be often a time lag between the date of an accident and the date of publication of the related report. Delays can occur where the pursuit of civil or criminal proceedings arising from a casualty effectively prevents release of a departmental report until after the completion of the legal process. I trust that this significant policy change will receive wide support and will be an indication of an effort on my part to move to a more open and frank style of administration in the maritime safety area.
I trust that the position I have adopted meets the case put so eloquently by Deputies Yates, Barnes, O'Sullivan and Byrne. I hope the Deputy will withdraw the amendment because it would be restrictive and could not be complied with in practice. I know the purpose of the amendment is to have the question debated and to try to make progress in that area. I trust that the Deputy will recognise that the step I am taking today is a substantial one.