I propose to take Questions Nos. 10, 12, 19 and 24 together.
I express my condolences and sincere sympathy to the families and friends of those who died and were injured in the tragic road accident in County Meath last Monday. I visited both Navan and Drogheda that evening and the response to this incident has brought home to me, as chairperson of the Government task force on emergency planning, the professionalism of our frontline emergency services and other support services dealing with such incidents.
Emergency planning is a key focus of my remit as Minister for Defence and it was a sad coincidence that the Garda Síochána had planned two exercises this week to test inter-agency responses in scenarios similar to the incident that occurred on Monday. In light of the circumstances of this incident, these exercises have been postponed to concentrate resources where they were needed most. I have asked representatives of the Government task force on emergency planning to brief those present at the June meeting on the responses to this incident.
The Government task force was established in October 2001. The membership of the task force includes Ministers, senior officials, senior officers of the Defence Forces and the Garda Síochána and officials of other key public authorities that have a lead or support role in Government emergency planning. The work of the task force continues and there have been 38 meetings to date. It continues to meet on a regular basis, as required, and the last meeting was held on 26 April 2005.
The office of emergency planning was established, following a Government decision in October 2001, as a joint civil and military office within my Department. The office supports the work of the task force and continues to work with Departments and other public authorities to ensure the best possible use of resources and compatibility between different emergency planning requirements and to oversee Government emergency planning in general.
The interdepartmental working group on emergency planning supports the work of the task force and oversees and carries out studies of emergency planning structures and processes. It is a forum for developing strategic guidance to all those involved and for sharing information on emergency planning. The working group encompasses all Departments with lead roles in the various Government emergency plans and key public authorities, including the Defence Forces. The working group continues to meet on a regular basis, under the guidance of the task force, and is chaired by the office of emergency planning. It has met on 34 occasions. The last meeting was held on 7 April 2005.
The lead responsibility for specific emergency planning functions remains with the relevant Departments, as do budgetary, exercise programme and resource management requirements. Emergency plans are co-ordinated by the various lead Departments at national level and through the local authorities, including the fire service, the Health Service Executive and the Garda divisions at local and regional levels.
Departments and key public authorities involved in this process have particular responsibilities under eight strategic areas of Government emergency planning. In 2004 my officials met 13 Departments with responsibilities for emergency planning and four State bodies which provide key support functions. Each of these Departments has assured the office of emergency planning that it is addressing its emergency planning responsibilities and has plans and response arrangements in place to address large-scale emergencies in Ireland.
My approach continues to be that such responses must be characterised by effective management of all aspects of emergency planning and by a high level of public confidence in all the response arrangements. I am keenly aware of the public confidence issues involved in emergency planning. It is my objective that information being presented to both the media and the public be aimed at developing an understanding of emergency planning issues and the likely responses that any emergency may require.
Review and refinement of arrangements, including regular exercises, will ensure co-ordination of all those responding. This work and the deliberations of the task force include sensitive areas of emergency planning. It would not be appropriate to give detailed information about meetings of the task force. Responsibility for internal security is a matter for the Garda Síochána, with support, as appropriate, from the Defence Forces.
Testing and exercising of emergency plans is an ongoing critical part of the emergency planning function for each lead Department and for those agencies under their aegis. The task force is informed on issues arising from this continued work. As chairperson, I have requested all authorities to review their emergency plans regularly, revise them as appropriate and develop structured programmes to exercise such plans. The Garda Síochána will continue a series of regional inter-agency exercises. I am pleased with the level of co-operation across the various agencies involved. Findings from these exercises will be a matter for the Garda Síochána and my colleague, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Issues arising are also matters for each Department concerned and those agencies under its aegis. Where co-ordination of emergency planning is a concern, this can be addressed by the Government task force.
I will continue to report regularly on a confidential basis to Government on emergency planning. I am pleased to report that there continues to be excellent co-operation between my Department and all other public authorities, as evidenced by the work of the task force, the working group and the office of emergency planning in these vital areas.