Adjournment Matters. - Aran Island Ferry Services.

This matter relates to a contract made with the Department of the Marine and Natural Resources in relation to the provision of a cargo and ferry service to the Aran Islands. It deals also with the details of the contract and its renewal in 1997.

I have a number of questions in relation to the contract and, in particular, to its renewal. I have a specific query in relation to the Government's contract committee. In reply to various queries made to the Department it states that, in consultation with the Attorney General's office, it decided to approve the Department's proposal. Will the Minister clarify whether the Attorney General's office actually approved the proposed contract? The Department also says that following legal advice, and the approval of the general contracts committee in the Department of Finance, it was agreed to enter into the new contract. I am anxious to have details of what legal advice was given and who gave it.

A query also being raised is that the company that contracted with the Department in 1992, O'Brien Shipping Limited, had difficulty making repayments. This was discussed during the course of negotiations for the new contract. In response to queries put to the Department, no reference was made to inflation as the reason given by the Department for a seven year extension. It seems strange that a seven year extension was given to a contract signed in 1992 because it was stated that the company concerned would withdraw the service if it did not get additional funds and that it would take four to five months to replace the service. That is the reason given for the extension.

At that time there were other companies providing a service. There was a cargo service operating without a subsidy and Island Ferries was operating a passenger service, also without a subsidy, on a seven day a week basis. If the Department had that opinion at the time, why did it not enter negotiations five months before the contract was due to expire in 1997 instead of pay ing O'Brien Shipping the sum of €233,000 during the four months of negotiation? Why did it not invite additional new tenders? These questions must be answered.

Inquiries also suggest that the Department sought and received advice from the Chief State Solicitor. In response to a parliamentary question, the Minister of State at the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, Deputy Coughlan, stated that there would be a saving to the Exchequer if a seven year contract was awarded to O'Brien Shipping. However, just a day before that particular contract was renewed in 1997, a contract was also signed with Island Ferries to provide a passenger service from Rossaveal at a cost of €228,0000 per annum. The then Minister of State at the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, Deputy Ó Cuív, was highly critical at the time of the existing service to Galway. There are a number of other issues. In reply to one query the Department states that the O'Brien service is primarily for cargo, yet there were other companies providing cargo services as well.

There are fundamental questions requiring answers in relation to the contract itself and to non-compliance with the contract. For instance, the Oileán Árainn is supposed to have side boarding ramps off the main deck to enable vehicles to be transported. The Department states that the vessel is fitted with ramps but the Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Fahey, states that the vessel is not fitted with ramps but can lift vehicles on and off. The facility being provided to get vehicles on is dubious and would not comply with EU regulations and standards of safety. The particular ramps are not fitted but are moveable and, I suggest, dangerous. The ramps should be attached to the vessel. What surveyor in the Department of the Marine and Natural Resources surveyed the vessel to see that it complied with the specifications under EU Directive L144 of 1998? The current facility is makeshift and does not comply with EU regulations.

Who approved the renewal of the contract with O'Brien Shipping and who gave the advice? Who in the Department of the Marine and Natural Resources saw fit to enforce the load line regulations on competitors of O'Brien Shipping while not applying them to The Happy Hooker at the same time? Other vessels in Cappagh and Westport were examined, investigated and inspected by the Department whereas this one, which was operating, was not. That leaves a question to be answered.

Is the Department happy that two directors of the company recently made a tax settlement with the Revenue Commissioners? Who approved the removable ramps for the Oileán Árainn? The Happy Hooker which is a standby vessel has never had a statutory load line certificate, yet the Government has contracted to do business with it. That is a fundamental breach of the contract. The Oileán Árainn is operating without side loading ramps for vehicles which also breaches the conditions of the contract because it is paid and subsidised by the Government to provide a roll-off service.

These questions need to be answered but they cannot be answered until there is a thorough and full investigation into what has gone on in relation to the entire service. Will the Minister undertake a full investigation in relation to the non-compliance with the contract and regarding the discrimination in the Department in relation to the non-inspection of these particular vessels and the inspection of other vessels that operate without being provided with subsidies from the Department?

My reply will be circulated but arising from what the Senator said I will move away from the text. It is often difficult for a Minister to respond to a Senator when one has only been given a broad outline of the terms of the Adjournment Debate, such as this debate which refers to the provision of passenger and cargo services to the Aran Islands.

The background to the Government's policy in relation to offshore islands and the core policy goal of the Department of Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands is the promotion of sustainable development on the populated offshore islands and, in particular, the provision of adequate levels of service to these islands. My Department has, as one of its aims in a statement of strategy, the facilitation of adequate, year round access to transport for island communities. This is the first time since 1997 that the implementation of such a policy – completed by me – has led to a subsidised service being provided to all the populated islands. This is a huge expense to the State but, in the context of facilitating access for people on the islands, it is money well spent.

In 1997, only four islands were facilitated by the service which included ferry services between Inishbofin, Inishturk and Clare Island and the mainland, a ferry service between Cape Clear Island and the mainland, ferry services between Sherkin, Whiddy, Bear, Long and Hare Islands and the mainland and ferry services between Tory and Aranmore Islands and the mainland.

In relation specifically to the Aran Islands, my Department funds the following services: a passenger and freight ferry service from Galway to the Aran Islands, a daily passenger ferry service between Inis Mor and Ros a'Mhíl and Inis Meain and Inis Oirr and Ros a'Mhíl and a daily air service between the Aran Islands and the mainland. The first of these Aran Islands services – the cargo and passenger ferry service between Galway city and the Aran Islands – is operated by O'Brien Shipping Limited for the period from 1 January 1998 to 31 December 2004 at a cost of €603,125 per annum. Under the terms of the contract between my Department and O'Brien Ship ping, this service operates three days per week during the winter months and four days per week during the summer. However, I understand that in practice the company provides a seven day a week service during the summer months by providing non-contracted sailings on the other three days of the week. The Department does not facilitate these additional services.

The second of these services – the passenger ferry service between Ros a'Mhíl and the Aran Islands – is operated by Island Ferries Teoranta for the period from 1 September 1999 to 31 August 2002 at a cost of €228,552 per annum. Under this contract, all three Aran Islands have, for the first time, a subsidised passenger ferry service seven days per week and all year round. While these services have improved the quality of safe access to these islands, my Department recognises that there is also a need for air access facilities to complement the ferry services which my Department has subsidised since 1970.

As a representative of County Clare, the Senator will be aware that my Department has had a plethora of freedom of information requests and parliamentary questions from her colleagues in the Dáil. She refers to specific issues which I will address in the context of a written response because I do not have the exact facts to hand.

I have no responsibility for the Department of the Marine and Natural Resources. All the ferry services provided and supported by this Department have been cleared by the Department of the Marine and Natural Resources and the requirements set down by the Department. The Department of the Marine and Natural Resources issues the relevant documentation to each of the operators. This forms part of the conditions of the contract.

They are in breach of a number of elements of the contract.

The Senator referred to that in a written inquiry a number of days ago regarding the side-boarding ramps. This is a matter for the Department of the Marine and Natural Resources rather than me, but I will ask the officials in the Department to examine that matter.

The Senator also referred to the contract renewal in 1997 which was dealt with through the normal Government contract committee. It was approved and legal advice was obtained by my Department from the Attorney General. It was thought a roll-over from five to seven years would give a greater cost benefit to the Department and the State.

Can the Minister of State say what was the legal advice?

We cannot have a debate across the floor of the House on this matter.

I do not have a copy of the legal advice.

Can the Minister of State get a copy?

I am not sure if it is available but the entire file regarding O'Brien Shipping is likely to be in the hands of another body. They are familiar with all the documents but I will forward all the relevant documentation the Senator has requested. It is my responsibility to ensure there is an adequate and safe ferry service for the islanders that has been subject to a cost benefit analysis. On a number of occasions, I have met the islanders and assured them that such a service will be provided. I have acted impeccably in relation to the O'Brien contract.

This happened before the Minister of State came into the Department.

I am still responsible. The contract was signed in 1997 with the legal advice and all the information that was available to our Department. All the relevant certificates from the Department of the Marine and Natural Resources were available on signing. I will advise the Senator of the information which has been part of an FOI request and I am sure she will be satisfied that the details of the contract between O'Brien Shipping and the Department – which was transferred from the Department of the Marine and Natural Resources and previously the Department of Transport, Energy and Communications – indicate that the Department did nothing improper in the awarding of that contract. I will advise the Senator of the other information she requested.