Other Questions.

Defence Forces Personnel.

Thomas P. Broughan

Question:

6 Mr. Broughan asked the Minister for Defence the number of Defence Forces personnel tested to date under the new drug testing programme; the numbers who tested positive; the action which is taken when a member tests positive; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17611/05]

Drug abuse has long been recognised as a serious and escalating problem in our society and while there have been relatively few instances of drug related problems within the Defence Forces, it is recognised that the Defence Forces, as a component of the wider community, mirror the community at large. The implications of drug abuse in an organisation where personnel have access to firearms are too obvious to require elaboration.

A compulsory substance testing programme was introduced on 1 February 2002 as part of a Defence Forces substance abuse programme following a long consultative process involving the Office of the Attorney General, the Deputy Judge Advocate General and Defence Forces representative associations. Prior to the launch of the programme, an education programme and awareness briefings were conducted throughout the Defence Forces. All personnel were issued with booklets which described the purpose, procedures and sanctions. All necessary measures, including pre-enlistment screening, education, compulsory random drug testing, monitoring and sanctions will be taken to maintain a drug-free environment within the Defence Forces.

The primary objective of compulsory random drugs testing is deterrence. To provide a credible level of deterrent, the testing programme has been devised to maximise the possibility of random selection for testing. A trained drugs testing team is responsible for taking urine samples for compulsory random testing throughout the Defence Forces. Testing commenced on 14 November 2002 and the programme is now in its third year of operation. The target of testing 10% of the Permanent Defence Force per annum has been achieved. A member of the Permanent Defence Force, randomly selected, may be required at any time to provide a urine sample which will be tested for evidence of use of controlled drugs, the abuse or misuse of other substances or for the detection of the metabolites thereof. A member of the PDF who refuses to provide a urine sample or who provides a urine sample which tests positive shall be liable to retirement, discharge, relinquishment of commission or withdrawal of cadetship as appropriate under the provisions of Defence Forces Regulations.

I have been advised by the military authorities that as of 9 May 2005, a total of 2,418 personnel at all ranks have been tested. There have been ten positive tests. Where personnel have confirmed positive test results, they are discharged or retired in accordance with the relevant regulations.

What substances are tested for under the drugs testing programme? The Minister noted the proportion of personnel in his reply. Does the Minister agree that, based on the results thus far, no evidence exists of a significant drugs problem within the Defence Forces? Does he accept that, given the work carried out by the Defence Forces and the access by personnel to weapons, drug taking cannot be tolerated? Are drugs awareness programmes conducted in the Defence Forces?

The answer to the last question is "yes". On the question of which drugs are tested for, a controlled drug is as specified in the Schedule to the Misuse of Drugs Act 1977, as amended by the Misuse of Drugs Act 1984 and includes any substance, product or preparation that is declared by order of the Government to be a controlled drug for the purpose of the Act.

As I mentioned earlier, 2,418 personnel have been tested since 2002, of which only ten have shown positive results. That is less than 0.5% and gives credence to Deputy Sherlock's assertion that a significant problem of drug abuse does not exist in the Army, about which we are pleased. I take his point that, given the position occupied by personnel and their access to weaponry, it is imperative that no drug abuse problem arise in the Army. This scheme was introduced as a deterrent. We have reached a stage where 10% are randomly tested per annum. The test is compulsory. A thorough appeals procedure exists for anybody who may feel aggrieved. Governments have been voted in and out of office on a smaller sample than 2,418.

Does any evidence exist to suggest that passive smoking of cannabis may lead to a positive test? Are recruits in training who test positive automatically discharged?

The answer to the latter question is "yes". They are immediately stood down but have access to an appeals procedure which I can communicate to the House or the Deputy if he so wishes. I do not know the answer to the question on passive smoking of cannabis. In theory, it could give rise to a positive test result but, as I have stated, an appeals procedure is available. People must be given the benefit of the doubt if they have a good defence.

On the issue of drugs and drugs testing in the Defence Forces, the Minister mentioned that only ten cases have been proved, which is a small proportion. Would the Minister share my concern that, even if only ten Defence Forces members who are in control of weapons test positive, a serious situation for public safety nonetheless arises? Have Defence Forces personnel been supportive of the issue of compulsory testing? The drugs issue is not faced solely by the Defence Forces but also by the wider community. We should maintain constant vigilance on this.

I agree with Deputy Finian McGrath. As I said to Deputy Sherlock, in terms of access to weapons, it would be a serious matter if there were a problem of widespread drug abuse in the Army. That is the reason for the test, which acts as a deterrent. The consequences, as Deputy McGrath noted, are serious but the sanctions, if one is caught, are also significant. The reaction of personnel has been positive. As ordinary members of the Permanent Defence Force do not want people who rely on drugs in their midst, reaction to the measure has been very positive. Whether reaction is positive or negative, the test is compulsory and a refusal to take it will carry the same sanction as taking it and producing a positive result.

Defence Forces Equipment.

Michael Noonan

Question:

7 Mr. Noonan asked the Minister for Defence the number of helicopters in the Air Corps; the age of these aircraft; if any replacement or upgrading of these craft is planned; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17546/05]

Michael Noonan

Question:

21 Mr. Noonan asked the Minister for Defence the number of fixed wing aircraft available to the Air Corps; the age of these aircraft; if replacement or upgrading of these craft is planned; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17533/05]

Bernard Allen

Question:

41 Mr. Allen asked the Minister for Defence the current age of all craft available to the Air Corps; the acquisitions which will be made to supplement the Air Corps fleet during the remainder of 2005; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17522/05]

I propose to answer Questions Nos. 7, 21 and 41 together.

The Air Corps has a 40-aircraft complement comprising 14 helicopters and 26 fixed-wing aircraft. The type and age of the aircraft is set out in the tabular statement.

In January 2005, two contracts were signed for the provision of new helicopters for the Air Corps at a cost of over €61 million. At a cost of €48.4 million, inclusive of VAT, four utility helicopters will be acquired from Bell Agusta Aerospace. Delivery of the first two helicopters will take place in 2006 and of the second two in 2007. The helicopters will be used in support of Defence Forces operations. A further two light utility helicopters will be acquired from Eurocopter SAS at a cost of €12.8 million, inclusive of VAT. The light utility helicopters are due to be delivered later this year and will be used to train pilots for their role in support of the Defence Forces. The utility helicopters will replace the Dauphin, Gazelle and Alouette helicopters which are, in the main, becoming obsolete. The helicopters will be withdrawn from service when the utility helicopters are delivered, at which point the Department will make arrangements to dispose of them by tender competition.

The eight recently acquired Pilatus PC-9M turbo-propeller aircraft have replaced seven Marchetti aircraft in the pilot training role. Modern aircraft facilitate the continued training of young cadets to the highest standards. The aircraft can be armed to give them a limited defensive capability. Arrangements are being made within the Department for the disposal of the seven Marchetti aircraft by tender competition. In the interests of flight safety, a cockpit upgrade is being carried out on the two Casa aircraft operated by the Air Corps. A complete radar upgrade is also being considered for both aircraft to increase their operational capability. There are no plans to replace or upgrade any other Air Corps aircraft.

Type and Age of Air Corps Aircraft

Aircraft Type Helicopters

Number

Age

Alouette

7

31 to 42 years

Dauphin

4

19 years

Gazelle

1

24 years

Squirrel*

1

8 years

EC 135*

1

3 years

Aircraft Type Fixed Wing

Cessna

5

33 years

Beechcraft

1

25 years

GIV

1

14 years

Casa

2

11 years

Defender*

1

8 years

Learjet

1

2 years

Pilatus

8

1 year

Marchetti

7

28 years

(i) The Marchetti aircraft have been withdrawn from service as they have been replaced by the Pilatus Aircraft.

(ii) Two Dauphin helicopters have also been withdrawn from service as they can no longer be flown without a major overhaul which would cost in the region of €2 million each. Given their age, this could not be justified.

* Aircraft owned by the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform but operated by the Air Corps.

I am pleased by the Minister's reply which sets out the commitment and preparation to replace some Air Corps aircraft. Does the Minister accept that a strong helicopter fleet is an integral element of the defence infrastructure of an island nation given the international terrorist threats which have emerged? Are there plans to reinvolve the Defence Forces in search and rescue operations? Defence Forces personnel carried out extremely valuable work in the role which also functioned as a positive PR exercise to allow the public to appreciate the effort, work, expertise and professionalism of the Air Corps.

I agree with the Deputy that the strongest possible Air Corps is necessary. The eight Pilatus aircraft which we acquired last year are replacing seven Marchetti aircraft which had an average age of 28 years and were becoming obsolete. While six new helicopters will replace 12 old aircraft, lower maintenance demands and greater efficiency will allow them to deliver nearly twice the flying hours previously achieved.

The Air Corps was involved in search and rescue operations in only one of four regions, the other three of which were handled by a different organisation. Unfortunately and reluctantly, but for very good reasons, the Air Corps search and rescue operation in the north west had to be decommissioned and its functions transferred to the organisation already conducting search and rescue in the other three regions.

Does the Minister see any opportunity to reintroduce the function to the Air Corps?

It is not currently envisaged.

When I last asked about the matter on 21 April, the Minister said a service level agreement was being finalised by the Departments of Health and Children and Defence. Has the agreement been finalised and will a dedicated air ambulance service be provided?

While the agreement is not yet finalised, I am advised that it is almost concluded. The question of a dedicated air ambulance service is a matter in the first instance for the Department of Health and Children. There are plans, however, on foot of the service level agreement to involve the Air Corps.

The detailed service level agreement will set out the details of the specific capabilities the Air Corps will bring to air ambulance services. A specialised air ambulance installation which is light and modular and has appropriate life support equipment which allows single-patient or incubator transfer is being acquired for each helicopter type in service in anticipation of Air Corps involvement.

Will the new helicopters be made available to the EU's rapid reaction force or battle groups as part of the headline goals?

Overseas Missions.

Denis Naughten

Question:

8 Mr. Naughten asked the Minister for Defence if he will reform the triple lock mechanism which governs the deployment of contingents of the Defence Forces; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17545/05]

Trevor Sargent

Question:

30 Mr. Sargent asked the Minister for Defence if the Government intends to view the operation of the triple lock at any stage in the future; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17565/05]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 8 and 30 together.

As the House is aware, the circumstances in which the Defence Forces may participate in overseas peace support operations have been made very clear by the Government. For participation to take place, the conditions known as the triple lock must be satisfied. According to the triple lock, an operation must be authorised or mandated by the United Nations, approved by Government and endorsed by way of a resolution of Dáil Éireann.

Section 2 of the Defence (Amendment)(No. 2) Act 1960 provides that a contingent of the Permanent Defence Force may be despatched for service outside the State as part of a particular international United Nations force only if a resolution has been passed by Dáil Éireann approving the despatch of a Defence Forces contingent for extra-territorial service as part of the international United Nations force in question. An international United Nations force is defined in the Defence (Amendment) Act 1993 as "an international force or body established by the Security Council or the General Assembly of the United Nations".

The UN mandate for a force and the Dáil resolution provided for in section 2 of the Defence (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 1960 form two elements of triple lock. The third element is the Government decision to approve the dispatch of a contingent and introduce an appropriate resolution in Dáil Éireann. Section 2(2) of the Defence (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 1960 provides that a contingent of the Defence Forces can serve overseas in the absence of a Dáil resolution where the force is unarmed and the contingent consists of no more than 12 members of the Permanent Defence Force or where the contingent is intended to replace, in whole or in part, or reinforce, an existing contingent.

As I have stated on many occasions in response to questions in the House and elsewhere, there are no plans to reform the current triple lock arrangements.

While we have dealt with the matter in other questions to a certain extent, I wish to know whether the Minister accepts that unless massive reform of the UN decision-making process takes place, Ireland will not be able to address quickly any crisis internationally. The issue is extremely importance in the context of the clear indication from Irish aid workers in the field that it no longer constitutes a solution simply to get aid to an area. It is necessary to restore order and create roads and other infrastructure if one is to deal with a crisis. The quicker a problem can be addressed, the better.

Ireland's participation in international peacekeeping will be ineffective unless there is significant reform of the UN's decision-making process or we formulate criteria domestically which allow us to participate in actions provided they conform to UN principles but which prevent any one nation exercising a veto on such participation.

Our contribution in the eyes of the world will not be undermined. The world has shown great admiration for our contribution over the past 50 years which has been made within the constraints of the triple lock and which will continue. The rapid reaction proposal is one further element which consists of a relatively small group of 1,500 troops going in at five days' notice from the time the decision is taken by the European Council, being supplied to remain for about 30 days, and to be resupplied for a further 30 days. In the vast majority of cases I envisage that will be just a holding operation until such time as the United Nations, either by way of contracting out the job or in the traditional blue helmet way goes in itself. We will certainly be playing our part in that.

In reply to Deputy Gerard Murphy, I am conducting extensive studies at present on all the obstacles that stand in the way of our participation in battle groups to see whether we can get around them within the confines of the triple lock. If it comes to a straight choice between the triple lock and participation in battle groups, my policy will be to stick with the triple lock. We await the outcome of the studies and research that are ongoing, which should not be delayed for much longer.

I assure the Minister that if he succeeds in coming up with a mechanism that would allow us full participation in humanitarian efforts where there are crises he will have the support of Fine Gael.

I welcome the Minister's personal commitment to the triple lock. I wonder how much sway he will hold in Cabinet in the long term. Is it not the case that for many people the triple lock is incompatible with our participation in battle groups? Does the Minister suggest that we become à la carte members of the battle groups? If he is totally committed, as he stated, to the triple lock, why has the Government refused to enshrine it in the Constitution where it belongs and let the people make a decision on this? I am convinced the people are totally committed to the United Nations. It has served us well and, as the Minister stated, we have gained a great deal of admiration around the world for our participation in UN missions.

I am personally committed to the triple lock, as Deputy Gormley recognised, but I also speak for the Cabinet. That is Government policy. We will stick with the triple lock.

In regard to Deputy Gormley's reference to à la carte members of battle groups, my understanding is that one cannot become an à la carte member of a battle group, one is either in or out. Our non-participation in common defence, as Deputy Gormley will know, is written into the Constitution.

Yes, but not the triple lock.

No, the triple lock is not written into the Constitution but non-participation in common defence will suffice in this regard.

I do not think so. It is really only a matter of time before it goes. I foresee that it will go in spite of the personal commitment of the Minister.

I do not share Deputy Gormley's pessimism.

Military Hospitals.

Liz McManus

Question:

9 Ms McManus asked the Minister for Defence the position with regard to the availability of St. Bricin’s Hospital to the Department of Health and Children; his views on the extent to which St. Bricin’s would need to be upgraded for use in the wider health service; if any such cost would be met by his Department; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17608/05]

Billy Timmins

Question:

42 Mr. Timmins asked the Minister for Defence when he expects to hand over control of St. Bricin’s Hospital to the Department of Health and Children; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17479/05]

Ciarán Cuffe

Question:

55 Mr. Cuffe asked the Minister for Defence the situation regarding his offer to make St. Bricin’s military hospital in Dublin available to the health service; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17560/05]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 9, 42 and 55 together.

The House will be aware that I have indicated my willingness to make the facilities at St. Bricin's military hospital available to the public health service. Representatives from the Health Service Executive, HSE, and the Department of Health and Children have visited St. Bricin's Hospital to inspect the facilities there. I inspected the hospital facility in late April. Detailed consideration of these facilities for public health purposes is in progress in the HSE and the Department of Health and Children.

The specialist engineering-architectural surveys carried out at St. Bricin's in 2001 indicated that total capital expenditure in the region of at least €20 million, at 2001 prices, would be required to bring the entire St. Bricin's Hospital facility up to the standard of acute health board and public voluntary hospitals. While some upgrading work has taken place at St. Bricin's since 2001, overall, however, the building remains essentially unmodernised. The refurbishment carried out, including fire safety works and rewiring, largely focused on meeting health and safety criteria. The expenditure required would depend on the intended use of the facility. Any such expenditure would be a matter for the HSE and the Department of Health and Children, as I previously made clear.

I am awaiting receipt of the considered opinion of the Department of Health and Children and the HSE arising from their inspections of St. Bricin's Hospital. Any proposals for possible public health care use of St. Bricin's facilities will be considered positively by me. My Department remains available to do everything possible to co-operate in this matter.

I take it the Minister will agree that when he made the offer of the use of St. Bricin's last month, no proper assessment was made at that point and that there was much publicity, including favourable headlines for him, although there was no contribution to solving the problems in accident and emergency services. Does the Minister agree with the Tánaiste's statement that a significant level of investment would be required to upgrade the hospital to the necessary standard? Does the Minister envisage the money coming from the Department? If the proposal is accepted, is it intended to reserve some or part of St. Bricin's for military use?

I will take the last question first. The answer is "yes", St. Bricin's is primarily a military hospital and the military will always have priority there. Deputy Sherlock asked which Department would pay for the renovations. I am pleased to inform the Deputy that it is the Department of Health and Children.

Regarding the amount of expenditure, as I stated, it would depend on the use to which the hospital was put. The assessment carried out in 2001 concluded that if the intention was to upgrade it to the standard of an acute hospital or a public voluntary hospital it would have cost €20 million at the time. A number of other possible uses were mooted. A price tag was also attached to the option of using the hospital for acute day surgery. It would have cost €3 million to upgrade the hospital for that purpose at 2001 prices. A sum of less than €2 million has been spent since the survey was carried out. It is not long since I made the offer and I have been in close contact with the Department of Health and Children in the interim. I expect a decision on this matter one way or the other very shortly.

The Minister referred to 2001 and the agreement that was reached between the then Minister, Deputy Michael Smith, and the Eastern Regional Health Authority. What progress was made and what was delivered on that? I understand ten-day care beds were promised as well as the use of an operating theatre. How much was delivered?

If I understand the question the Deputy asked, the position is that the then Minister, Deputy Michael Smith, indicated in 2001 that St. Bricin's would be available. The relevant health authority looked at St. Bricin's and decided it would not be cost effective. A number of possible uses were considered. The first option, to turn it into a proper hospital such as an acute hospital, would have cost €20 million in 2001 prices. A detailed feasibility study was carried out on one of three possible options — acute day care surgery — and the price tag to cover a ward and an operating theatre was €3 million in 2001 prices. It was also decided that this was not cost effective and facilities were acquired elsewhere. To date, the health service has not availed of the opportunity to use St. Bricin's, but perhaps on this occasion it will.

When does the Minister expect the process to be completed and a final decision made on this matter?

I assure Deputy Sherlock that whatever the Health Service Executive and the Department of Health and Children want to do, they will have my full co-operation. I am waiting for them to finalise their processes. I cannot speak for them.

Does the Minister have any idea when that might be?

They have told me they will come back to me shortly.

National Emergency Plan.

Paul Nicholas Gogarty

Question:

10 Mr. Gogarty asked the Minister for Defence if he will report on the meeting he convened on 26 April 2005 of the task force on emergency planning; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17562/05]

Michael Ring

Question:

12 Mr. Ring asked the Minister for Defence the number of task forces or agencies with responsibility for national security and emergency planning; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17543/05]

Tom Hayes

Question:

19 Mr. Hayes asked the Minister for Defence when the task force on emergency planning and the interdepartmental group on emergency planning last met; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17539/05]

Bernard Allen

Question:

24 Mr. Allen asked the Minister for Defence if recent testing of emergency planning has taken place; if so, the findings of any such tests; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17554/05]

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.

I thank the Minister for his reply and join with him in extending deepest sympathy to the families of the deceased and those who have been injured in the terrible bus accident in Navan.

On the national emergency plan, I understand there was an exercise in Youghal in March. I presume the success of this exercise was assessed at the task force meeting in April. I believe it involved the collision of a truck carrying hazardous waste with a bus carrying schoolchildren on the Youghal bypass. How successful was the exercise? Did the overcrowding in our accident and emergency units present a difficulty in dealing with the catastrophe? Where will the other three exercises take place and what kinds of exercises will they be?

A report stated the Minister for Defence does not have a central role and that he is not even on the committee of Ministers. Does the Minister believe he should have a more central role? There is a real need for reform in this area. In dealing with a major incident such as an explosion at Sellafield, do we not need a more co-ordinated and centralised approach? Exercises conducted in the past indicated that the emergency services would find it very difficult to cope with such an incident.

On the first question, we discussed the results of the exercise in Youghal, which was code-named "Blackwater". By and large, it was very successful. Without going into too much detail, I can state there were some glitches pointing to a few areas where there is room for improvement. We are examining these. The purpose of such exercises is to determine what weaknesses exist in the system. The glitches did not concern accident and emergency units. I have asked the task force to create a schedule for the exercises planned for the next 12 months. I should have this shortly and will communicate it to Members, if that is satisfactory.

I am glad Deputy Gormley mentioned the report referring to my role. It reminds me that an article in The Irish Times made a number of critical suggestions in this regard. In the interests of transparency, I offered to write an article in response but The Irish Times did not see fit to accept it. I do not know why.

The Minister writes for the Irish Independent.

Perhaps The Irish Times does not like me. I do not know why. There were a number of inaccuracies in the article. I have a draft of the article I was to write in reply and I might let Deputy Gormley have a copy. The article suggested that, in the event of an emergency, a committee of Ministers would meet but would not include the Minister for Defence.

That is what I said.

It is incorrect. I wanted to correct this inaccuracy in the interest of public knowledge. I am on the committee.

There has been much talk about co-ordination. In some countries, the office of emergency planning is located in the office of the Prime Minister. In Ireland it is located in the Department of Defence. This is because our approach is different. The lead role is taken by each Department and we co-ordinate from the centre.

Since I took over as Minister for Defence, I arranged for the task force to meet monthly to ensure that it stays on top of its brief. There are three bodies involved. The Government task force lays out policy and states what must happen, the interdepartmental working group makes it happen and the office of emergency planning provides the administrative back-up. I shared some of Deputy Gormley's reservations when I was looking at this matter from outside. I used to ask what was happening and say the public does not know much about the process. However, from my experiences of chairing the meetings, I have been reassured in respect of the Departments' plans.

I will be making proposals to Cabinet shortly to increase public confidence in the emergency planning system.

Is the Minister satisfied that we have the wherewithal to deal with a disaster at Sellafield?

The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has a major plan for such.

Iodine tablets.

Yes, and the Department of Health and Children has taken a number of steps. I will talk to this Department about incidents such as that mentioned by the Deputy. It is on the agenda for the next task force planning meeting. I will tell the Deputy more about the Department's preparations after that meeting but its officials assured me they are well prepared to meet public health concerns in the wake of such an eventuality.

I join the Minister in expressing sympathy to the families of the victims of the recent tragedy in Meath. As the Minister indicated, the entire situation involves an enormous task of co-ordination between the various agencies and Departments around the country. No doubt individually and in combination, the Garda, the Defence Forces, health workers, county council workers and a plethora of agencies, including the civil defence, do a tremendous job. The Minister has accepted that in other countries this area is centralised in the equivalent of the Taoiseach's office, and there is a good reason for this.

Here in Ireland each line Minister appears to have more responsibility. There may be cases where a given line Minister might not give something the priority, say, that the Minister for Defence would give it. Even though I accept that he is a persuasive man and can be stubborn as regards getting things done at times, he might not be as effective as the Taoiseach. Perhaps there is an argument to be made for a role for the Taoiseach's office in this whole matter.

I concur with the Minister and the other Members in conveying the House's sympathy to the family and relatives of the deceased in the County Meath accident. I know the Minister has spoken at length on this matter, but as was pointed out, it is taking too long to get decisions.

I accept what Deputy Gerard Murphy says. A plethora of agencies are involved in each individual case, whether in a train derailment, a bus crash or a chemical fall-out. Ultimately, three key agencies are involved, however. Departments here operate differently from those in other countries. One can debate endlessly what is the right approach, but here the lead Departments take their individual responsibilities. As regards how they are performing, that is precisely why the Government task force meets on a monthly basis, and the various Departments send their representatives. I have a series of questions to ask those representatives at each meeting and I invariably put them through their paces.

Defence Forces Reserve.

Michael D. Higgins

Question:

11 Mr. M. Higgins asked the Minister for Defence the progress to date with regard to the implementation of the reserve Defence Force review implementation plan; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [17615/05]

Phil Hogan

Question:

56 Mr. Hogan asked the Minister for Defence his plans to bring forward legislation to permit members of the reserve Defence Forces to serve overseas. [17644/05]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 11 and 56 together.

On 26 July 2004 my predecessor, Deputy Michael Smith, officially launched the reserve Defence Force review implementation plan which was the start of a process that will radically change the structure and configuration of the reserve while preserving its traditional strengths. These include such matters as the spirit of voluntary commitment, maintaining strong links with local communities and a nationwide geographical spread. The plan will be implemented over the course of the period to end 2009 and progress to date is on schedule.

The Permanent Defence Force is now organised in a three-brigade structure and a Defence Forces training centre. It is intended that the reserve Defence Force will be similarly reorganised and restructured. In producing detailed proposals for the restructuring of reserve units within each brigade area, the military authorities have taken due cognisance of the existing FCA presence within communities. The provision for the establishment of a working and support relationship between each reserve unit and a designated Permanent Defence Force unit will result in enhanced training opportunities and access to specialised equipment and will lead to improved interoperability. I have been advised by the relevant military authorities that the required regulatory changes, including the new establishment, change of title etc. are on schedule to come into effect on 1 October next. Consultation and communication have been a priority throughout the development of the plan, and this will continue.

An important change recommended by the study of the reserve is that members of the FCA and the Naval Service reserve should be considered for participation in overseas peace support missions subject to certain criteria. While there are no immediate plans for participation by members of the reserve Defence Force in overseas missions, policies to support the selection of reserve personnel for overseas duties will be developed over the lifetime of the reserve Defence Force implementation plan.

Members of the FCA are already seeing the benefits in terms of better clothing, improved equipment, better quality training and an increased quantity of training. The allocation of paid training days for 2005 is 114,000 days and over the course of the implementation, subject to financial prioritisation within the military budget as a whole, it is planned that this allocation will be increased.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House.

As the implementation process develops we will see additional benefits in terms of a clearer role for the reserve, a better overall organisation structure and opportunities for suitably qualified personnel to serve overseas. We will also see benefits from the closer integration of the reserve with the Army.

The Dáil adjourned at 4.45 p.m. until 2.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 31 May 2005.