Priority Questions.

Crime Levels.

Jim O'Keeffe

Question:

5 Mr. J. O’Keeffe asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform his views on the upsurge in the level of gun crime, robberies and hostage-taking; and the steps he has taken to deal with the activities of armed gangs to bring them to justice. [16224/05]

Joe Costello

Question:

6 Mr. Costello asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform the steps being taken to deal with the surge of serious crime over the past few months, including the spate of gangland style killings, robberies of cash in transit consignments and abductions and kidnappings; if he intends to provide additional resources to the Garda to help it combat these killings; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16261/05]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 and 6 together.

I have outlined previously to the House the extensive range of measures which have been taken to deal with the types of crime referred to in the questions. Those measures will, of course, continue.

I have been concerned for some time, and this is a concern shared on all sides of the House, that serious offences which have been taking place have made evident the emergence of a gun culture in Dublin. This, sadly, has been manifest in the number of fatal shootings that have taken place, particularly in recent weeks. Those deaths will be comprehensively investigated, as will the incidents of armed robberies and other gun crimes which have taken place. The Garda Commissioner advises me that he is confident of success in a number of those investigations.

The Garda has amassed a considerable amount of intelligence about gun crime in Dublin and has a very clear picture of what is going on. Both the Garda Commissioner and I, in the course of intensive discussions in recent days, have agreed that the time is now ripe to build on that work in ways that will strike at the heart of the gun culture which has emerged.

I can report to the House that last night the Garda Síochána launched Operation Anvil. This is one of the most intensive special policing operations ever undertaken in the State. It will be intelligence-driven and will be aimed at those involved in gun crime of any kind in the Dublin metropolitan region.

Its cost will amount to €6.5 million, which I have made available from my Department's allocation for this year, in addition to other allocations to the Garda Síochána. It will involve about 15,000 additional hours overtime being worked each week by gardaí in the Dublin area. This expenditure will not adversely affect existing agreed overtime allocations across Garda divisions, including those for the Dublin metropolitan division.

It would be counterproductive for me to give precise details of what will be involved in Operation Anvil but it will involve divisional uniform and detective patrols throughout the region, backed up by national units, overt and covert operations, mobile and foot patrols, random checkpoints at specific locations, extensive searches, execution of warrants and gathering and collation of high quality criminal intelligence. The Commissioner is adamant this will not be done by sucking in those involved in community policing, depriving that area of the necessary manpower. The operation will be focused, sustained, targeted and relentless.

One feature of the gun culture that has emerged is the apparent belief on the part of some criminals that they are not bound by or subject to the laws of the land. Nobody is above the law and, likewise, nobody is beneath the protection of the law. Operation Anvil is intended to supplement existing operations to ensure that lawlessness does not prevail, that the threat posed by these criminals is met sternly and effectively and, above all else, human life is respected.

While our legislation for tackling organised crime is one of the toughest in Europe, I propose it is strengthened further. The Criminal Justice Bill 2004, which is on Second Stage in the House, provides for a comprehensive package of anti-crime measures which will enhance Garda powers in the investigation and prosecution of offences. These include a general power on the issue of search warrants, including a superintendent's right to issue an emergency search warrant in certain circumstances, increased detention powers of up to 24 hours for arrestable offences and a statutory power to preserve a crime scene. Part 3 makes provision for the admissibility as evidence in court of statements by witnesses who subsequently refuse to testify or retract their original statements. I am considering introducing several amendments, including a proposal to provide for criminal offences for the participation in a criminal organisation, as requested by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights.

With the recent increase in violent crime involving firearms, there is an overriding necessity to ensure public safety and security are given priority in any review of policy and legislation on firearms. I have decided to bring forward proposals in the context of the Criminal Justice Bill to provide the secure custody of firearms, minimum sentences and new offences for modifying firearms, such as the sawing off of a shotgun barrel. I intend to provide for severe penalties for the possession of sawn-off shotguns and the modification of shotguns.

I ask all sides of the House to help me expedite these measures in a genuine spirit of co-operation. I ask all Members to welcome the measures the Garda Commissioner has put in place since last night, which will be a substantial and unprecedented operation against gun crime in Dublin city.

At long last the Minister has stirred himself, even if only by making available funding of €6.5 million to the Garda Síochána. This should be of some help and I wish the force every success with the provision of an additional 15,000 hours in overtime.

Are we clear on the extent of the gun crime problem? The rate of crimes involving guns is unprecedented, with a minimum of one murder a week and robberies of ATMs and cash in transit, with large amounts of moneys being taken out of the system by criminals. The Minister will have the co-operation of all sides of the House on necessary legislation. I suggest, however, he circulates his proposals on making membership of an armed gang a criminal offence. It should be published on a separate basis to the Criminal Justice Bill so that it can be passed quickly by the House. It may be tied up if it is locked into the Criminal Justice Bill as there are many other issues in the Bill that need to be teased out.

Will the Minister also consider introducing legislation on hostage-taking? I appreciate serious penalties exist for false imprisonment. However, to mark our absolute revulsion at hostage-taking, it should be set out as a separate offence. It is all very well to have certain penalties for stealing, but stealing involving hostage-taking must be a separate offence. I urge the Minister to examine this and I assure him he will have co-operation from this side of the House if legislation is introduced. We have legislation dealing with hostage-taking with regard to international crime but not domestic crime. If it is sufficiently important to deal with it internationally, why not take it into account in our domestic legislation?

Regarding resources, the Garda is welcome to the 15,000 hours of overtime, but can the Minister take any further urgent steps to ensure the Garda will have the support it needs on a continuing basis, in terms of manpower and equipment? The Garda operates with equipment to which armed gangs have ready access. There is no encryption or security in their walkie-talkie equipment, which is 20 years out of date. The Garda PULSE computer system also needs to be upgraded. Can we urgently provide the Garda with the necessary resources on a continuing basis?

Could the Minister give an analysis of the situation regarding armed gangs in the country? It is important that the public know. I have heard that there are 17 armed gangs. Is that correct? How many people are involved? I know the Minister cannot name names, certainly not in these circumstances, but would it be important in terms of alerting the public to the situation in full, and giving it more information as to who is involved, their numbers, the extent of the problem and the number of gangs involved? The public should also be told about the weaponry involved. In the past three years, some 1,300 weapons have been stolen, while I do not know how many have been smuggled into the country. The public is concerned, and entitled to the information available. If it had it, the public could be of assistance to the Garda in dealing with the horrendous problem facing us.

I welcome Deputy O'Keeffe's support for getting on with the core legislative requirements to deal with the problem. Although some of the provisions of the Criminal Justice Bill are controversial, most of the central ones, such as detention, search and scene preservation powers will assist the Garda Síochána in the fight against this kind of crime.

Regarding crime involving organised gangs, the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights has considered the matter and I am moving on Committee Stage to meet that committee's thought-out proposals.

Hostage-taking is a form of false imprisonment——

A gross form.

——and a very serious offence for which the penalty is life imprisonment. I heard Deputy O'Keeffe on radio discussing whether we should regard hostage-taking as a separate species, so to speak, but we should remember that the penalty for false imprisonment can be life imprisonment. I do not want to speak entirely off the cuff, but perhaps a case can be made for a minimum sentence where a threat is made to the life of an individual. Almost anything, even putting someone in a cupboard, can be false imprisonment, but when someone's life is threatened for the purpose of committing another felony, there may be a case for a minimum sentence. We could consider that on Committee Stage of the Criminal Justice Bill.

It is true that depending on one's definition of a gang, there are between 15 and 30 groups of people here who confederate to commit offences. At this stage I do not want to say much about them, but in case the Deputy thinks these figures are conjured up, I have seen spreadsheets with the names of people involved, an elaboration, a map, so to speak, of how these gangs are organised and inter-related. It is not as if the Garda is blundering about with no strategic view of the problems.

Deputy O'Keeffe should note that there is a clear pattern of people who in the past were members of paramilitary bodies, now using for their private ends all the thuggish skills they developed and the mercilessness they exhibited, threatening and killing innocent people, and shooting people in the head. On a number of recent occasions, intelligence briefings have suggested to me that former so-called patriots have now taken to the most appalling thuggery to enrich themselves.

Regarding firearms, the theft of shotguns in particular is a serious matter. One of the proposals among the Committee Stage amendments of the Criminal Justice Bill is to create a mandatory regime for secure custody of firearms in the houses of those who have them for lawful purposes. I will deal with that on Committee Stage.

I welcome what the Minister said about giving €6.5 million to Operation Anvil, but I remind the Minister that just before Christmas he provided some €4 million to what I believe was Operation Crossover, for the months of November and December. Once the money and overtime hours are gone, the resources are gone and we are back to square one. If I recall correctly, it was in November that the Minister came out with the rather flamboyant expression: "I don't believe there is any new energy in crime in Dublin". That was in November 2004. The Minister said he believed the situation then was "to some extent, the sting of the dying wasp". Since then, there have been ten or 12 gangland-type killings, so the Minister is clearly out of touch in this matter.

What we are now getting is a belated response by the Minister in an effort to show the public he is doing something about the situation, though he made no effort to prevent any of these killings or to bring the perpetrators to justice. When the €6.5 million is spent, we will be back to square one again. Can the Minister now give us some commitment that we will not merely get a small pool of money for use on a once-off mechanism, with the plan, if there is one, to be then thrown aside once again? Can we have the commitment in resources and personnel on an ongoing basis? The Minister might outline to us how he would provide something of this nature. When a person is shot dead emerging from Mountjoy Prison, in broad daylight, the situation is clearly out of control.

Will the Minister agree that one of the reasons there are so many killings by these hit-men, who are paid by criminal gangsters with access to drugs, and a great deal of money as a result, is that the hit-men are at virtually no risk of detection, prosecution or imprisonment? In the past five years, the detection and prosecution rate has been only 16%, the lowest such rate for all headline offences. If one commits a gangland murder, one is less likely to be punished for that than for any other headline crime one might commit. What will the Minister do about that?

Regarding security firms, is it a fact that we currently have no licence scheme, regulations or standards for any of the security operations here, and that some 26,000 security personnel go merrily about their business while there are no proper standards or vetting procedures in place? Can the Minister give us some idea of when the private security services legislation will be in operation to the extent that it will have some meaning?

With regard to the gun culture, what will the Minister do about the enormous number of weapons that are available in this country? The Minister indicated that some of these are paramilitary weapons, some are smuggled weapons while others are stolen, but having that knowledge is not good enough. What steps will he take to get those weapons out of circulation?

I act in conjunction with the Garda Commissioner in the allocation of funds. Operation Crossover, to which the Deputy referred, was a successful operation. It targeted specific areas on the western side of this city and had a significant effect.

Everything is now back to square one.

We are by no means back to square one. There was a significant improvement in the situation arising from Operation Crossover. I attended the opening of a new offenders' transition home in the Blanchardstown area some days ago and, on that occasion, voluntary groups who are concerned with crime in the Blanchardstown area reported to me that there had been a dramatic improvement in policing in their area, with which they were happy, and that the improvement was being sustained. I congratulate local Garda management for reallocating its resources to produce this greater visibility.

It is true that I believed last year that, as a result of Operation Crossover, the organisations of major players had been broken up and that they were effectively on the run. However, others have stepped into their shoes and the Garda Commissioner has asked me for these extra resources. Deputy Costello would ask why these are not available all the time and would suggest that there should be no particular set of operations but constant overtime and the attendant constant flows of money.

I am not saying that, I am saying the opposite.

It is important that when we engage in a certain type of expenditure, we keep it under review to assess whether it has lost its vitality and whether it is yielding dividends.

I am seeking ongoing resources.

It would be easy to simply tell the Garda Commissioner that he can have as much money as he wants which can be spent as he wishes, but I cannot do that and I accept the Deputy is not inviting me to do it. I cannot operate on the basis of proclaiming that there is no limit to overtime and that the Garda can do what it wants at any time. If that psychology took hold, we would simply see diminishing returns.

I thank the Opposition Deputies for heeding my call last year to pass the legislation establishing the Private Security Authority of Ireland. The authority is now up and running in Tipperary, its chief executive has been appointed and it is putting in place the licensing regime for cash in transit companies. I outlined previously to the House the issues that arose in this area and the 120 day period which I had allowed the banks and cash in transit companies to get their houses in order.

Do not give them any time.

I could click my fingers and demand that it be done tomorrow but if it is necessary to buy equipment and to establish new training regimes for the workforce and so forth, time is required. However, I should make clear to the chairmen of the banks, most of whom I know personally and whom I hope will hear my remarks because they keep an eye on what happens in this House, that I am not bluffing about the 120 day period. If they think that on day 119 they can begin to engage in this process, they are greatly mistaken. I urge them to act on this now because I will not hesitate to impose a regime on the banks which will allow me to direct the level of security for which they must pay. This country deserves protection from those who steal large sums of money because it is they who will later take other people's lives and invest the proceeds in drugs.

We must move to the next question.

May I ask another supplementary?

No, it will soon be time for ordinary questions and other Members wish to speak. In the interests of all Members, we must proceed.

I just wish to make two points.

We must proceed to Question No. 7.

Garda Investigations.

Aengus Ó Snodaigh

Question:

7 Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform the reason for the difference between his statement of 12 April 2005 that the review of the case of the assassination of Sinn Féin Councillor Eddie Fullerton cannot be completed until the Garda receives full co-operation from the British authorities and the PSNI and subsequent denials by the PSNI and the Northern Ireland Office that they are responsible for the delay. [16362/05]

There is no difference between my reply to certain parliamentary questions on 12 April 2005 and the factual position on this mattervis-à-vis the British authorities. On 12 April last, I stated in this House that outstanding issues relate to the awaited results of a mutual assistance request to the British authorities and certain police-to-police inquiries with the Police Service of Northern Ireland. However, an administrative difficulty has subsequently emerged relating to the processing of the original mutual assistance request. We made the request and it was sent by registered post. Unfortunately, the request when posted was apparently mislaid on the other side of the fence, not on the Irish side. The original letter of request was forwarded by my Department by registered post on 8 December 2004 to the judicial co-operation unit at the Home Office, which acts as the central authority for such requests in respect of Britain and Northern Ireland. As no response was received, a number of reminder letters issued from my Department to that unit.

In response to these reminders, a fax message was received from the Northern Ireland Office, London, on 15 April 2005, three days after I made those remarks in the House, stating that neither that office nor the judicial co-operation unit had any record of receiving a mutual assistance letter of request in the matter. In reply, on the same day, my Department forwarded by registered post and by fax a copy of the original letter of request, together with copies of reminder letters, directly to the Northern Ireland Office, London. My Department asked that the request be executed as soon as possible.

I confirm that in a fax message received on 6 May last from the Northern Ireland Office the Assistant Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland stated that our request is under consideration. With regard to the separate police-to-police inquiries, I am informed by the Garda authorities that the results of these inquiries are still awaited. In summary, it appears that my Department's original mutual assistance request somehow, regrettably, went astray on the other side but that our resubmitted request is now under consideration by the British authorities. The separate police-to-police inquiries remain outstanding.

As I previously stated, no final conclusions can be made about the inquiry until such time as the British and Northern Ireland authorities' responses are received, evaluated and acted upon, as appropriate, by the Garda Síochána.

That clarifies some of the matters I wished to raise. It is strange that on the same day the Minister got the confirmation, 15 April, an article appeared in theIrish Independent stating that the PSNI had not received that request. When was a request made prior to that? Was a request for help made to the British authorities at the time of the assassination in 1991, in April 2002 when the family again called on the Donegal gardaí for a proper investigation or in June 2003 when the inquiry began again? Was the request outlined by the Minister the only one made? What is the timeframe for the British authorities to respond to the most recent request? Will we have to wait for as long as we did in the case of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings and then get a negative response? Will the Minister publish the interim report if the additional information is not available from the British authorities? In a previous reply the Minister said he will not publish the final report. What are the reasons for that?

I do not intend to publish the interim Garda report which I received some weeks ago or the final results of the Garda investigation. However, I have undertaken to contact the Fullerton family's solicitors with a full response to their concerns, including action I deem appropriate or necessary by way of further investigation. I reject categorically suggestions, one of which was made in public, that I sought to misrepresent anybody in my reply to a debate on the Adjournment of the House on 13 April 2005. In that reply I first confirmed that the Garda authorities had interviewed the person characterised as a key witness by the Fullerton family solicitors, despite occasional claims to the contrary and, second, I informed the House that person could no longer stand over the statement he made to the Fullerton family's solicitors and, instead, had made a new statement to the Garda review team. A number of discrepancies were identified between the person's statement to the Fullerton family's solicitors and his responses to the Garda review team. In particular, the review team noted that in his original statement to the RUC on 30 May 1991, the person made no reference to the fact that he had a meeting with RUC and Garda officers. These are statements of fact, nothing more and nothing less.

Departmental Properties.

Jim O'Keeffe

Question:

8 Mr. J. O’Keeffe asked the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform if he has satisfied himself that the enormous expenditure of taxpayers’ money on asylum seeker accommodation and services and the legal process is fully justified and properly and efficiently expended and that all appropriate procurement procedures are properly followed; and his proposals for an independent examination of the system with a view to reporting on the current arrangements and establishing a more open, transparent, efficient and cost effective process. [16226/05]

I assume the Deputy is referring to the four properties purchased in 2000 by the Office of Public Works to accommodate asylum seekers in Rosslare, Carlow, Donnybrook and Macroom, which were not brought into use together with the leasing arrangement entered into by OPW in 2002 for the construction of a custom-built accommodation facility in Kilkenny.

I will set out the circumstances that gave rise to the acquisition in 2000 of these and other properties by my predecessor through the OPW together with other accommodation facilities to accommodate asylum seekers to give as full a picture as possible. In the autumn-winter period of 1999-2000, the number of people entering the State to claim asylum increased threefold when compared to the early part of 1999. The number who claimed asylum in the first three months of 1999 was 826 while in the last three months of the year, the number had increased to 3,278.

In a matter of months a situation which was manageable had become virtually unmanageable. Moreover, there was no way of predicting this, as it was, and still is, entirely demand driven. The State is obliged in domestic law under the 1951 Geneva Convention to have in place arrangements to process each and every application for asylum, irrespective of how many may apply. In November and December 1999, lengthy queues of asylum applicants, including infant children, outside the Office of the Refugee Applications Commissioner were a daily occurrence. Over that period, and into early 2000, almost 500 children were included in the numbers of persons applying for asylum. Queues began forming at 6 a.m. and remained in place until 8 p.m. Health board staff, who at that stage had the task of accommodating newly arriving asylum seekers, were faced with the difficulty of trying to find accommodation for, sometimes, up to 100 men, women and children a day. On some nights, applicants had to be turned away because no accommodation was available. At that time there were also reports in the media of asylum seeker families having to sleep in two Dublin parks.

Quite clearly the situation had reached a critical stage. Accommodation facilities in the Dublin area had been exhausted and the number of persons travelling to the State to claim asylum had reached a level which was unthinkable six months previously.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

During this period the Government had been considering this issue with a view to identifying urgent and badly needed solutions. The situation was also giving rise to grave concern to the UNHCR with the result that its then representative in Ireland indicated to the former Minister that it would support such extreme measures as the accommodation of asylum seekers in tents in the absence of other solutions. In so doing, the UNHCR, while acknowledging the seriousness of the situation in an accommodation market which had been exhausted, also made it clear that the State had both a legal and moral obligation to ensure that newly-arriving asylum-seekers were accommodated. The situation was such that the option of using tents was urgently considered in association with the Defence Forces. Senior management from the directorate for asylum support services — now the Reception and Integration Agency — travelled to the Netherlands to assess, among other accommodation options, tented pavilions. However, tented accommodation had to be ruled out after detailed assessment on fire safety grounds.

The Government decided that from April 2000 the system of direct provision and dispersal should be introduced to address the needs of asylum-seekers. The reason for the lead in for that decision to come into effect was to enable accommodation and related facilities to be identified, procured and readied for use and to mirror the implementation of a similar system in the UK with whom we share a common travel area. However, the ongoing daily pressure of finding accommodation for newly arriving asylum seekers meant that, in reality, there was virtually no lead in period for identifying suitable accommodation options.

Moreover, the Government also decided that the task of arranging accommodation and generally implementing direct provision should be given to a new cross-departmental directorate for asylum support services within the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. The OPW was also assigned the task of assisting the directorate in this regard. Immediately the directorate set about the task of procuring suitable accommodation throughout the country.

At that point, it had two key objectives. The first was to identify accommodation facilities throughout the State which could be brought into use immediately to deal with the large numbers who continued to arrive every day. In that regard, the pattern established in the second half of 1999, when the number of new asylum-seekers was at about 1,000 per month, continued into the new year and almost 5,500 new applications were made in the first six months of 2000. The second key objective was to identify properties which could be made available in a slightly longer timeframe, that is, to meet the anticipated demand in the latter part of the year. In March 2000, the Government decided that, over time, a mix of accommodation solutions should be put in place to give effect to the system of direct provision and dispersal. The mix decided by the Government was as follows: permanent accommodation, 4,000 places; system-built or prefabricated buildings, 4,000 places; mobile homes, 1,000 places; flotels, 1,000 places; and the commercial sector, 2,000 places.

During 2000, a total of 69 properties were brought into use to accommodate newly arriving asylum seekers under the system of direct provision. During this time, nine of these properties had been purchased by the OPW and these comprised of six hotels, one hostel and two premises which had been in institutional use. A further three facilities were developed on State-owned sites as mobile home centres.

Planning requirements in respect of these State-owned facilities were addressed by the making of ministerial orders under the Local Government (Planning and Development) Act 1993 in respect of two hotels and three mobile homes sites. In the case of the other four properties no change of planning status was required. These orders were made on foot of clear, unequivocal and unambiguous legal advice from the Office of the Attorney General. At no stage in the procurement of properties for rent, lease or purchase did the RIA act without the prior advice or contrary to the advice of the Office of the Attorney General.

While there was hostility and objection to the arrival of asylum seekers in some of the communities where these facilities are located, no legal challenge was mounted by the communities to the validity of the planning mechanism used. Controversy and significant local opposition arose almost immediately in respect of some of these properties — both State and commercially owned — with local communities expressing fears about the arrival of asylum seekers in their neighbourhoods. However, these difficulties were addressed by compromise in all cases where they arose except of course in relation to four properties which had been purchased, where compromise proved elusive.

Sustained and repeated efforts were made to address the concerns of local residents in the areas where these properties are located but without success. Local interests in Macroom and in Donnybrook exercised their right to challenge the use of the properties through the courts on planning grounds. The proposed use of the premises in Macroom remains the subject of legal proceedings while in the case of the premises in Donnybrook, Broc House, judgment in favour of the respondents was delivered on 30 April 2004. Having regard to the substantial financial outlay that would be required to bring Broc House up to current regulatory standards, the time lag before the works could be completed and a review of the RIA accommodation portfolio in September 2004, it was determined that Broc House was no longer required for the accommodation of asylum seekers. Discussions are ongoing between the OPW and the Health Services Executive for its use as a community-based health care facility.

In the case of the hotel in Macroom it was determined on foot of a review of the RIA accommodation portfolio that it was no longer required for the accommodation of asylum seekers. In the light of this review, the RIA requested the Office of the Chief State Solicitor to make contact with the residents' solicitors with a view to brokering a mutually acceptable agreement. Discussions on the matter are ongoing.

Asylum seekers have been accommodated since early 2000 in hotels and former institutional-type facilities without problems on the planning front. These include ten properties owned by the State and 120 properties which are or were procured on a commercial contract for services basis. In the case of the property at Myshall, County Carlow, significant local opposition manifested itself as soon as it became known that it had been purchased by the State to accommodate asylum seekers. There was very serious concern about maintaining the safety of asylum seekers in that location. In March 2001, the Department of Health and Children was being pressed to provide a facility for autistic children and RIA advised that, in the particular circumstances, it was no longer proposed to use the building as an asylum seeker accommodation centre and that it could be developed for the proposed alternative use. The property was transferred to the Department of Health and Children for no consideration in 2002.

As regards the property at Rosslare Harbour, this was purchased for use as a reception centre for all asylum seekers arriving in Rosslare. The situation in Rosslare had become critical because, at that time — 2000 — the number of asylum seekers arriving off ships there was almost equal to the number who made their claims at Dublin Airport. The Devereux Hotel presented a ready made solution and was available for immediate occupation which, given the numbers arriving at the port, was a key factor. However, due to the introduction of a number of initiatives by the Garda National Bureau of Immigration, in co-operation with the French Immigration authorities, the number who applied fell from a high of almost 1,500 in 2000 to less than 100 in 2001. Since then the number of applicants in Rosslare has remained low. Notwithstanding the fall-off in numbers applying at Rosslare, a 24-hour picket was placed on the premises and it was made clear that any attempt to accommodate asylum seekers would be resisted to the point of physically blocking the entrance. In September 2001 the OPW was advised that, in the light of the completely altered circumstances in Rosslare, the property was no longer required as a reception centre for newly arrived asylum seekers and I am informed the OPW has sold the property.

In the more recent case of the Kilkenny site, the use of the planning order was challenged in the High Court. Three of these type of facilities had already been constructed and brought into use in Clare, Cork city and Finglas by that stage and in each case, the planning mechanism which has given rise to the legal challenge in the Kilkenny proposal was used without difficulty. Arising from the review of accommodation by RIA in September 2004 when it was determined that the construction of an accommodation centre of this site was no longer warranted, the proceedings were settled between the parties.

The procurement of suitable accommodation for newly arriving asylum seekers continues to be a significant challenge. Since the system of direct provision and dispersal was introduced, more than 38,000 asylum applicants have been accommodated under this system. The RIA is operating 83 centres in 25 counties accommodating almost 8,000 asylum seekers and it should be borne in mind that it was only in the case of these four properties and the site in Kilkenny that it did not prove possible to achieve community acceptance of asylum seekers.

On the basis of the information available, expenditure on asylum seeker accommodation was necessary. I am satisfied direct provision is a fair, humane and cost effective way of meeting the accommodation and ancillary needs of asylum seekers and the Government has no plans to change the system.

The agency concerned spends approximately €18 million per year but it does not publish an annual report. The purpose of my question is to seek an independent examination of the expenditure of those moneys over the years and to focus on the procurement procedures relating to contracts entered into by the agency. There are three issues. The first, value for money, was touched on by the Minister and it needs to be closely investigated.

The second is the lack of an open tender competition in many cases. Given the enormous sums involved, opportunities are presented for "worse than waste" in the system, including opportunities for sweetheart deals. I am aware of circumstances, which suggest at least the possibility of such sweetheart deals having occurred in a number of cases. I would like those cases to be fully investigated by an independent examiner and a report published.

The third issue is who are the ultimate beneficiaries of much of this funding. It is ironic but it has been suggested to me that significant criminal and paramilitary figures have, in a number of instances, been the ultimate beneficiaries of the Minister's largesse through this agency. I also seek an independent examination of this issue. The Criminal Assets Bureau should also be alerted in this regard.

The properties that were the subject of recent controversy were all acquired before I became Minister. There is no question of largesse on my part to anybody in regard to them.

I do not refer to them.

If the Deputy has information that money I or my predecessor expended is ultimately going to criminal or paramilitary beneficiaries, I would like to receive it. I will act immediately on foot of such information and try to confirm it. If confirmed, I would take every step to get the CAB to recover such moneys. The House is not the place to discuss these matters but if the Deputy comes to me privately, I assure him I will act with total expedition.

A number of properties are involved, including the hotel in Rosslare. There was a significant flow of people from France to Ireland because Garda immigration officers were not operating at Cherbourg or on Irish-bound ferries and the reason the hotel was purchased was it was the nearest accommodation point that could be thought of at the time. There was a strong local reaction, including threats of unlawful picketing, which made it difficult to operate that premises.

I refer to two other properties — Broc House in my constituency and Kilkenny. Recent publicity about them totally ignored legal challenges that were brought in the courts and injunctions sought to prevent the use of these premises to house asylum seekers. The proceedings relating to Broc House in Donnybrook only concluded recently and, since then, the property has been the subject of negotiation to put it into the health system so that it can be used in conjunction with St. Vincent's Hospital by the Health Service Executive.

I accept the Minister's offer regarding the ultimate beneficiaries from the criminal and paramilitary world and I will give him my information. However, I am hugely concerned about the possibility of sweetheart deals, which involved information being available from within the agency or by those attached to the agency for the purpose of alerting people on a favourable basis to arrange contracts. No open procurement procedures or tendering process is in place. The reply I received from the Minister last Tuesday on this issue confirmed that the EU open tender competitions rules only apply to management and catering services and do not apply to accommodation, in which I am interested. I still seek an independent examination of the contract procedures and publication of a report on them. The examination, which is necessary, could be conducted by the Comptroller and Auditor General's office or another independent office.

If the Deputy has information about sweetheart deals, I would like to hear it. If he brings the information to the Committee of Public Accounts, the deals will be fully investigated. However, if I can conduct an investigation sooner than the committee, I will do so. We should be fair and the Deputy will appreciate the open tendering procedure is fraught with difficulty in these matters. At the time these properties were acquired, there was a major crisis.

I do not refer to those properties.

If people become aware properties are being tendered to the State, there will be a massive outcry every time such a competition is held because every time somebody says he or she has a property, there will be a major problem.

The time allocated for Priority Questions has been exceeded. However, Deputy Cuffe's Priority Question may be taken now with the agreement of the House.