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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 3 Nov 1994

Vol. 446 No. 7

Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - Alteration of CBF Document.

Avril Doyle


1 Mrs. Doyle asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry the reason the briefing note prepared by CBF for the Department of Agriculture in anticipation of Irish-Iraqi joint commission talks in November 1988, was edited by his Department without the author's permission; whether this practice is still acceptable departmental policy; and his view of the consequences of deleting a sentence which indicated that, in recent years, the product supplied to Iraq had largely been from intervention, which was in the original version of the letter from CBF. [2894/94]

Desmond J. O'Malley


3 Mr. O'Malley asked the Minister for Agriculture, Food and Forestry whether he or his predecessor knew or approved of the alteration in an official CBF document made by an official of his Department; the number of people in the Department who knew of this alteration; and whether the alteration of documents is acceptable departmental policy. [2941/94]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 3 together.

The matters raised by the Deputies were dealt with during the three day Dáil debate on the report of the beef tribunal.

The official who amended the CBF briefing note explained his reasons for amending the document to the tribunal and these are outlined at page 544 of the tribunal report. He also explained to the tribunal that he did not intend to mislead anybody and that he was certain that he would have discussed the amendment with the author of the original document.

As I indicated in the course of the debate on the report of the beef tribunal on the 3 September it has never been the policy of my Department to alter documents for the purpose of misleading and I condemn any such practices.

Neither I nor my predecessor were aware of the amendment to the document until it was brought to the attention of the tribunal by counsel for the State in June 1992. The official who made the amendment to the document indicated to the tribunal that he and a junior official in the division which prepared the composite Department's brief for the joint commission were the only officers immediately aware of the amendment. The consequences of the amendment of the document as seen by the chairman of tribunal are outlined on pages 214 and 545 of the report of the tribunal.

It is nevertheless, clear that the document concerned was prepared as briefing material for a Minister engaged in discussions relating to trade and was not in any way intended as background for decisions to be taken in regard to export credit insurance.

Was any other document edited or altered in any way without the author's permission since the Minister took up office? As Minister, does he accept the doctrine of ministerial accountability and, if so, would he take responsibility for any document proven to be altered without the author's permission?

I have no knowledge of the alteration of any document since I became Minister and, of course, I accept the doctrine of ministerial accountability in relation to my Department.

The Minister stated that the official who made the alteration and one other were the only people aware of the alteration. Does the Minister recall the official's evidence at the beef tribunal in which he stated that the alteration was widely known throughout the Department, had departmental approval and was in accordance with acceptable departmental policy? As that was the evidence given under oath by the office concerned, how can the Minister say only two people were aware of the alteration?

From the information available to me, only the official concerned, who was named at the tribunal, and one other were aware of the briefing document prepared for the Minister of State who was going on a trade mission. In his report, the chairman of the tribunal did not attribute any wrongdoing to the official concerned.

It is interesting that the official also said in evidence to the tribunal that such editorial work on documents "happens all the time".

We should not have quotations at this time.

Is the Minister aware that the deletion of the particular sentence from the CBF letter, which referred to the sourcing of beef from intervention, cost the State up to £20 million? That was the effect of the editorial work carried out by his official, apparently without approval. Is the Minister aware that it cost the State £20 million? Is he also aware that on day 121 of the 321 days of evidence, counsel for the State, which included the Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, stated that it was difficult if not impossible to establish whether intervention beef went to Iraq. Half of the £35 million——

I must dissuade the Deputy from quoting.

I am asking the Minister if he is aware of this.

Quotations are not in order at Question Time.

The Chair need not protect the Minister to such an extent. He is well able to respond to what I am asking.

I resent that remark and it must be withdrawn forthwith. I am merely standing over the orders of this House.

May I put the question to the Minister?

The Deputy must first withdraw the allegation made against the Chair.

The Chair is not protecting the Minister at all. May I put my question, please?

The Deputy should proceed without impugning the Chair.

I am merely carrying out my instructions and orders here. The Deputy may proceed.

From whom does the Chair get instructions and orders? I thought the Chair followed Standing Orders. That was a strange statement.

I am following the rules of the House and the Deputy is well aware of that.

Is the Minister aware that half of the £35 million cost to the taxpayer spent on the beef tribunal was the result of a cover up in relation to the source of the beef, a cover up which was aided and abetted by the editing — although I would rather use a stronger word — of the CBF document? Does the Minister accept responsibility for the ill spent money?

The document in question was a briefing one made available to the Minister of State who was going on a trade mission. I assume officials in all Departments seek information in relation to the possibilities for trade with other countries from various State agencies as well as from their own Departments and make a composite brief available to the relevant Minister.

Do all Departments forge material given to them by outsiders without permission?

Is it possible for me to reply without interruption from Deputy Doyle?

The Department of Energy appears to do something like that.

As these are Priority Questions——

There are serious implications for the State in the way the Minister's Department handles information.

Let us have an orderly Question Time. Deputy Doyle has asked questions, let us hear the Minister's reply.

This brief was prepared by the official questioned at the beef tribunal for a Minister of State for a trade mission. The official gave his evidence and the chairman of the tribunal did not apportion any blame or wrongdoing to him.

That was not my question.

I call Deputy O'Malley.

With respect, Sir, a continuum is important.

Let us not forget that there is a time factor involved in dealing with Priority Questions.

I did not ask the Minister about the blame attached to the official. I asked whether he was accepting responsibility for half the £35 million the beef tribunal cost taxpayers because of the forgery of the CBF letter which hid from counsel for the State, the fact that most of the beef supplied to Iraq was from intervention. Does the Minister accept that 121 days of the 321 days of evidence was spent trying to establish the source of the beef which would have been readily evident had not the CBF letter been doctored, forged or edited by his Department?

I do not accept responsibility for half of the cost of the beef tribunal. The official in question prepared a brief for a Minister of State travelling on a trade mission. As I have said repeatedly, no blame was attributed to him by the chairman of the tribunal. There was no question of that.

That is not what the Minister was asked.

Is the Minister aware that the chairman of the tribunal made it perfectly clear that had the brief prepared for the Minister of State at the Department of Industry and Commerce by CBF, and not by the Department of Agriculture, been forwarded, as was intended by CBF, to the Minister of State and the Department of Industry and Commerce in 1988 when this trade mission took place, that Minister of State, and that Department, would then have been aware that intervention beef was being very widely used in supplying Iraqi contracts, as CBF said, that the whole question of the policies and guarantees for very large sums of money might never have arisen; that the chairman of the tribunal found that to be an extremely serious point which he constantly reiterated and to which he referred in the course of his report? In view of the fact that the Minister's Department was made aware by CBF in 1988, and were themselves aware in 1988, of the widespread use of intervention beef in Iraqi contracts, can he explain why my Department was not informed of that fact when a query on that very point was made in November 1989?

I accept that as stated on page 214 of the report of the beef tribunal, that would be the case if the original document had been made available to all Departments, including Deputy O'Malley's and the Department of Agriculture. I might also point out that in volume 120B of that report the chairman said:

I also accept that from time to time there must be sales out of intervention. Otherwise, we get completely clogged up with it.

That is not in dispute. Will the file on the forgery of the CBF letter be sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions?

That is a direct quotation from that report.

The Minister answered half the question.

More than half the time available to us for dealing with these five questions has now elapsed. I must insist on a brief question.

Would the Minister now answer the second part of my question, having answered the first, and confirmed what I said, which was——


Would he deal now with the second part and, since his Department was aware, at least from 1988, that intervention beef was widely used, why did he not inform me and the Department of Industry and Commerce of that fact when that specific inquiry was made at my request in November 1989?

Because I was not Minister at the time.

Why did the Minister for Agriculture not inform me?

I think we have dealt adequately with these questions. I am now calling Question No. 2.

So much for the doctrine of ministerial accountability. There are a few civil servants very concerned about this Government.

I am calling Question No. 2.

Is it not significant that this smart Alec-type reply was given, that the Minister will not endeavour to reply to a perfectly legitimate question posed——

If the Deputy is dissatisfied with the Minister's reply, he has a remedy available to him.

——because he has no reply, because there was deliberate concealment of a very important and material fact——

Please, Deputy O'Malley may not embark on a speech now.

——which cost the taxpayer a great deal of money?

Will the file on the CBF letter be sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions? That is where it should be sent and they will have seven months to look at it.