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?