Search and Rescue System: Motion

I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Deputy Naughton, to the House.

I move:

“That Seanad Éireann:

recognises that:

- Ireland’s Search and Rescue (SAR) system is derived from the Irish Government’s adherence to the following international conventions and guidance manuals:

- International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) Convention, Annex 12;

- ICAO Convention, Annex 14, Volume II, Heliports;

- International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS) 1974: Chapter V ‘Search and Rescue’;

- Convention on the High Seas 1958: Article 12 ‘Master to render assistance and Coastal State to establish SAR services’;

- Convention on Maritime Search and Rescue (1979) ‘Provision of search and rescue services and RCC’;

- United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (1982): Article 98 ‘Duty to render assistance’;

- International Aeronautical and Maritime Search and Rescue (IAMSAR) Manuals Vol 1, 2 & 3;

- policy responsibility for maritime and aeronautical SAR services in Ireland rests with the Department of Climate Action, Communication Networks and Transport (DCACNT); this policy is implemented by the Irish Coast Guard (IRCG) as the maritime SAR Coordinator and by the Irish Aviation Authority (IAA) as the aeronautical SAR Coordinator. Land SAR is implemented by An Garda Síochána (AGS);

- DCACNT is responsible for ensuring that a National SAR Plan (NSP) is established and is fit for purpose; the National SAR Committee has been established by DCACNT as part of the NSP to monitor the performance of the Plan and report to the Minister on an annual basis, or as required on the performance of the NSP and identifying areas for improvement;

- the IRCG is required to discharge Ireland’s SAR obligations by implementing the NSP for all incidents occurring in the maritime domain, or as otherwise requested by SAR authorities in other domains; the IRCG is responsible for defining the requirements for the SAR helicopter contract and maintaining effective oversight of contractual compliance;

- the National SAR Committee (NSARC) represents the interests of both SAR service providers and beneficiaries in advising on SAR policies, plans and agreements; it will be chaired by a suitably experienced and qualified person independent of the organisations represented; the members of the Committee are drawn from the primary SAR stakeholders (IRCG, IAA and AGS), as well as representatives from supporting SAR stakeholders (SAR units and SAR service providers);

- all SAR stakeholders are expected to have in place:

- Service Level Agreements (SLAs) with the relevant SAR Coordinators based on an agreed template setting out respective roles and responsibilities, services provided, availability, Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), and oversight arrangements;

- the NSP will be delivered on a phased basis; this will enable a managed and integrated approach to the revised SAR structures, and to the development of the necessary Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) and SLAs between SAR stakeholders, both horizontally and vertically, within the system;

believes that:

- the planning assumptions that were developed jointly by DCACNT and the IRCG in the Future Aircraft Study Group report in 2009 that influenced the design of the current helicopter SAR contract, were flawed;

- at no time during the current contract was there a necessity to surge more than 2 SAR helicopters to a rescue; a belief that such a capability was required contradicts the cited planning assumptions that unpinned the current helicopter SAR contract;

- over the course of the ongoing Helicopter SAR contract the concept of Value for Money (VFM) for the State was not realised from the manner in which the contract was structured and delivered;

- the Canadian Helicopter Company (CHC) S92 helicopters deployed to the contract were not new; the contract agreed with CHC unwisely depreciated these CHC assets over 10 years as new aircraft and not used assets;

- DCACNT does not have embedded in its permanent staff sufficient aviation corporate knowledge to construct a Helicopter SAR contract that realises full VFM to the State;

- aviation consultants contracted by DCACNT must possess optimum qualifications and operational contract experience to assist in the provision of a multi-million-euro Helicopter SAR contract;

- existing SLAs with the DOD for the provision of Fixed Wing SAR TOP COVER on an ‘as available’ basis does not guarantee the provision of the capability 24/7/365 required by IRCG:

- State risk of a loss of SAR services from industrial action by a single private contractor delivering all helicopter SAR is worrying; it must also be remembered that in 2016 the CHC Group filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy Protection in the USA;

- to address this risk the State must urgently reintroduce sovereign helicopter SAR capability delivered by the Air Corps for the new 10-year SAR contract; additional resilience would also be provided by a mix of helicopter types provided from both a private contractor and the Air Corps; this would also mitigate any risk that might arise as a result of the grounding of a specific aircraft type for whatever reason;

- Ireland’s sovereign risk responsibility in international and national SAR obligations that rests solely on a single commercial contract must migrate to a hybrid model providing layers of resilience in a mix of sovereign and commercial service delivery protecting against industrial action which would ground aircraft;

acknowledges that:

- the Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, along with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence, Simon Coveney, are both favourably disposed to the Irish Air Corps delivering part of the next Helicopter SAR contract;

- the provision of a Helicopter SAR service is a long-term tasking of the State and as such should assess the financial impact of leasing helicopters for the provision of this service in an informed manner;

- the National Treasury Management Agency (NTMA) can borrow money for the provision of capital assets at a more favourable interest rate than a private commercial helicopter company and that the state will pay a premium if commercial borrowing rates solely govern the next SAR contract;

- while the future Helicopter SAR contract is subject to Public Spending Code (PSC) procedure, the planning assumptions for the next contract need reviewing to ensure VFM to the taxpayer, ensuring the input of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (DPER) is strongly brought to bear on this procurement process;

- by utilising the Air Corps from Casement Aerodrome for East Coast SAR, it would reduce the overall size of the residual helicopter SAR contract to be tendered thereby opening the contract to a wider group of Helicopter SAR operators leading to a more competitive tendering process resulting in better VFM to the State;

- SAR providers can integrate into the NSP by detailed MoUs and SLAs;

and calls on the Government to:

- conduct an independent review of the quality and completeness of the required specialist professional SAR aviation expertise and operational helicopter SAR contract corporate knowledge being provided to the DCACNT;

- conduct an informed statistical analysis of the past 10 years IRCG helicopter SAR operations and nest requirements for the next Helicopter SAR contract around on facts based operational requirement rather than the historical Planning Assumptions of the now dated Future Aircraft Study Group of 2009;

- direct the Air Corps to assume responsibility for the provision of Helicopter SAR operations on the East Coast utilising their State existing and future helicopter assets;

- resource the Air Corps with the personnel and aircraft to provide Helicopter SAR on the East Coast;

- finance the future Helicopter SAR contract creatively through the NTMA leveraging the State’s ability to borrow money at far lower interest rates than a commercial entity;

- adopt, while policy is implemented by the IRCG, a whole of Government approach, when providing SAR, recognising the capabilities available in other Government Departments to aid in the provision of SAR services, specifically the Department of Defence.”

I will share time with my colleague, Senator Boyhan. The Minister of State is welcome to the House. Ireland has recently suffered blows with Covid-19 and the ransomware attack on the HSE. The exposure of vulnerabilities in healthcare provision and cyberdefence point to an absence of critical sovereign capability to mitigate against such threats.

The word "sovereignty" entered popular discourse in Ireland during the financial crash but its true meaning involves international recognition of a geographical territory, its borders and people. Ultimately, sovereignty is about having the resources to protect one’s citizens.

Search and rescue, SAR, is a vital national service that entails the rescue or recovery of people on land or at sea. The Air Corps has successfully delivered SAR since 1964 and continues to do so as a Defence Force task. The service is essential and cannot be compromised under any circumstances. Ireland must always retain a sovereign SAR capability provided by the Defence Forces Air Corps. The Air Corps is a State asset with aircraft, pilots, maintenance technicians, air traffic control and physical infrastructure in Casement Aerodrome, Baldonnel.

Taxpayers pay to maintain Air Corps assets and their use must be maximised. The Defence Forces are the first to be called up in a State emergency and have played a significant role in tackling both of the recent crises. Since 2004, civil SAR has been provided by a private contractor. The SAR service is staffed by civilian staff, comprising highly professional and courageous pilots and crews. I acknowledge their dedication. This contract is up for review and renewal and, while SAR is an essential service, guaranteed delivery should not preclude financial prudence or value-for-money analysis.

Recent mischievous commentary in the media by vested interests committed to continuing a fully privatised SAR service erroneously suggests that the Air Corps lacked the capacity to deliver on any part of the upcoming contract. I assure the Minister of State that current Air Corps pilot strength is at an all-time high through organic pilot entry, training in Ireland and abroad and re-entry into service of former Air Corps pilots. The Air Corps is in rude good health.

Contrary to what has been reported in the media by vested interests, there are no regulatory impediments to the Air Corps being awarded part of the new SAR contract. Air Corps flying regulations are nested in the constitutional legal order of the aviation world and fully comply with Ireland’s international obligations under the Chicago Convention of 1944. Military air regulations have due regard for civil aviation and across Europe there is a total system approach to aviation safety enabled by civil-military co-operation.

The military air regulations of the Air Corps for SAR operations fulfil this mission in line with the requirements of the International Civil Aviation Organization, ICAO, and International Maritime Organization, IMO. Every EU state is responsible for establishing its regulatory regime and ensuring effective co-ordination between the maritime and aviation sectors, having due regard to the objectives of the European Union Aviation Safety Agency, EASA.

The outsourcing of SAR for the past two decades has been a high-risk activity. We must now act wisely to mitigate this risk by ensuring that a sovereign State asset, namely, the Air Corps, is tasked with providing a portion of the ten-year SAR contract. Outsourcing all SAR delivery to an international civilian company flies in the face of having State resilience and sovereign capability in times of crisis, as we have seen with Covid and the HSE ransomware attack.

The current privatised SAR contract was listed as costing €523 million when placed in 2012. To date it has cost €640 million. By 2023, it will cost in excess of €700 million. An aviation expert from an Irish third level institution has calculated the cost of SAR being delivered by the Air Corps from 2023 for ten years at €152 million. That is east coast SAR. It would include the east coast helicopter SAR, plus the fixed-wing top cover serviced by the new CASA aircraft, which are due to be delivered soon. The saving to the Exchequer would be an estimated €389 million compared with the cost of the same service provided by a civilian contractor.

When we look back at the current contract, we can see that it was both flawed and inadequate. It betrays a lack of knowledge by the Department of an operational SAR contract, particularly the technical and operational aviation elements of it. This should never have been the case because in 2009, the Department and the Irish Coast Guard commissioned a report by the future helicopter study group on tender specification criteria for search and rescue helicopters. Of note is the report’s recommendation for night-vision goggle flying and helicopter underslung operational capability for firefighting and resupply in any future contract. Sadly, the night vision part did not find its way into the 2012 contract, instead raising its head astonishingly in 2013, one year after the contract was signed. The underslung capability was contracted for but never delivered. This contrasts with the night-vision service the Air Corps has offered to An Garda Síochána and the air ambulance service since 2008, and has provided for military operations and military SAR since then.

Incredibly, in 2013, one year after the contract with CHC Helicopter was signed, the company was contracted by the Coast Guard to deliver night-vision flying capability with its five S-92 helicopters. However, the cockpits of these helicopters were not fitted for night-vision flying.

This resulted in the State paying an additional €3.5 million, plus VAT, to retrofit the helicopters that were not the property of the State for night-vision flying, further increasing the value of the CHC asset at the taxpayers' expense. Furthermore, in 2015, the State purchased night-vision goggles for CHC at a cost of €570,000, with an additional spend for pilot and crew training. I understand that, to date, the training for night-vision operations has not been completed and that it is possible that no CHC helicopter contracted by the State to the Irish Coast Guard has flown a single night-vision mission despite adding €7.5 million in additional costs to the contract. In an even more serious turn, the State agreed a financial model with CHC to allow a depreciation cost structure in respect of the five helicopters provided over the lifetime of the contract as if the helicopters were new, but four of them were not new.

CHC was contracted in 2012 to provide helicopter sling load operational, HESLO, capability to carry large water buckets on its five helicopters. During the recent wildfires at Killarney National Park, its services could not be used because its aircraft were never outfitted to perform this task. Instead, the Air Corps deployed three HESLO-capable helicopters and the State contracted a fourth from Scotland. During the incident, this had an impact on the spread of the fire. Where was the Department's and Irish Coast Guard's oversight of the compliance element of the 2012 contract?

In July 2020, the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton, issued the first annual report on the national SAR plan, which was submitted by the committee chaired by Vice Admiral Sir Alan Michael Massey, a UK SAR veteran. One of the key recommendations was the urgent requirement for a SAR assurance mechanism, which involves professional external advisers ensuring compliance with best practice. In 2017, the Department and the Irish Coast Guard sought a company to carry out this role. I can inform the House that the company contracted to carry out this potentially lifesaving role of aviation assurance compliance and to provide advice to the Department of Transport on the next SAR tender was only incorporated in 2014. Its first annual accounts, which, I should say, are not subject to audit, were submitted in 2015 and, crucially, its annual accounts to 31 January 2017, the year in which it won the tendered contract to provide aviation assurance compliance, showed a potential loss of £32,000, net assets of £13,000 and cash-in-bank of £9,000, and the company had just one employee, namely, the owner. The company accounts show no significant debtor or creditor balances that would confirm ongoing trade. There is no evidence of a verifiable track record of the multiple high-value contracts that were listed in the letter I received recently from Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan.

I ask the Minister of State to explain the discrepancy between the company accounts and the list of projects that the company was said to be involved in. The taxpayer should know what distinguished this company from other companies who tendered for the contract and given the company had only one employee, what consideration was given to the possibility that this owner-director might sell the company? Was a change of control clause built into the contract? What other contracts was this company involved in as evidenced by its balance sheet? Did the State effectively purchase the services of a one-man show?

On the 14 May last, I received a reply to a letter I sent to the Minister, the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste raising my concerns in regard to the current and future SAR contracts and, in particular, about the company contracted in 2017 to provide aviation assurance compliance. The letter states, "The company customer base is impressive and varied and includes other EU Coast Guard, Oil and Gas companies, several wind energy companies, an air ambulance charity, various public bodies and national, EU and UN agencies" - this for a company that was just three years old. The letter continues: "The company uses technical and pilot specialists with decades of aviation experience including considerable helicopter and SAR experience." The company accounts, all of which are publicly available, show zero evidence of such diverse trading activity or the hiring of expert consultants to service these suggested contracts. We already have ample evidence to show that the 2012 contract was not subjected to the scrutiny and oversight that is necessary in respect of such a critical contract. I am very concerned now that the company contracted by the Department and the Irish Coast Guard in 2017 to advise on the next SAR contract may not have the necessary skills to do so. I am seriously worried about a repeat of the mistakes made in respect of the 2012 contract.

I believe the Air Corps must be part of the new contract. The Air Corps, as a State entity, cannot formally bid on any part of this contract. It can only be tasked by the Government to do so. The Air Corps has already submitted a comprehensive proposal to the Department on why it should be granted a defined element of the helicopter contract and all of its fixed wing element. Supported by the Irish Air Line Pilots Association, IALPA, I now call on the Minister of State to make this submission publicly available. She should also publish the Department and assurance expert opinions, along with the Air Corps rebuttal of that critique. This is the only way a fair and transparent process can be seen to have taken place in the awarding of this enormous State contract.

To sum up, it would be a very smart move for Ireland to retain its sovereign capability for SAR. Ireland and the UK are the only two states in Europe that have totally outsourced SAR services to private companies. In tasking the Air Corps to operate east coast SAR from the Baldonnel base, the Department could reduce the new contract price, opening the tender to many companies. A reduced private sector involvement will drive down prices and will allow numerous aviation players to compete because of the smaller scale, which will result in a more competitive bid. In addition, the State would be sending a powerful message of support and confidence to its military. It would also reinforce the message to international contractors that they do not enjoy a monopoly service delivery and cannot effectively charge what they want. A SARs contractor assuming that the State has no alternative or sovereign competitor is dangerous and costly. It is the aviation equivalent of an international pension fund swooping in to buy an entire housing estate, the result being the State will never own the houses, or in this case the helicopters, but citizens will be paying extortionate rent or lease costs.

The Irish Fiscal Advisory Council recently stated that official budgetary forecasts are poorly founded, major policy commitments are not built in and the promised medium-term strategy has not been delivered by the Government. The chair of the council also stated that the absence of well-founded medium-term plans and fiscal targets leaves the public finances unanchored. In light of this, I call on the Minister of State and her colleagues in the Government to act on the very serious issues that I have outlined in the interests of fiscal responsibility, public safety and national sovereignty. I thank the Minister of State for her time and I look forward to her reply.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I second the motion. First, I want to thank the members of the Irish search and rescue service who risk their lives to save the lives of many other people. Regardless of who they are or for which service they work, they face the same challenges and difficulties and they put themselves at risk for us. It is important that we never lose sight of that in any debate on SAR.

My understanding is that since 2004 the Irish Coast Guard has had overall responsibility for the provision for the search and rescue service within the Irish search and rescue domain. I understand also that the Irish Coast Guard falls within the remit of the Ministry of Transport. A SAR action steering company was established under the auspices of the Department of Transport and led by the Irish Coast Guard to manage procurement for the next SAR aviation service. Can the Minister of State confirm if personnel from the Department of Defence and members of the Air Corps are key stakeholder members of the steering group progressing the next contract, etc? Is the defence organisation supportive of the Department of Transport's plans for the next generation search and rescue contract? Has a full appraisal of the various service delivery options been completed? Has the Government at this stage ruled out the State assuming full responsibility for the service through the Air Corps? I do not propose to make a call in that regard because I am not qualified to do so, but they are kernel issues in this debate.

I again thank the Minister of State for coming to the House for this debate and I thank the Government for the countermotion. I gleaned a great deal of information from it. If nothing else, the motion and the countermotion have shone a light on a number of issues and helped me and, I think, other Members of this House to understand other aspects of the issue. I look forward to the Minister of State's comprehensive reply.

Thank you Senator. It was quality rather than quantity today.

I move amendment No. 1:

(a) To delete references to “Department of Climate Action, Communication Networks and Transport” and “DCACNT” in each place where it occurs and substitute “Department of Transport” in each such place;

(b) To delete all words from and including “believes that:” and substitute the following:

“notes in relation to the future service that:

- a rigorous and robust process is underway under the direction of the Department of Transport, involving all key stakeholders, to bring a business case to Government shortly on the procurement of a new IRCG aviation service;

- the process is being managed in accordance with the requirements of the Public Spending Code to deliver VFM and in accordance with the requirements of public procurement law;

- the Department of Transport has appropriate expertise available to it, including independent experts and a Process Auditor to ensure compliance;

- the process to date has involved the following key steps:

- in November 2019, the Department commenced a process to prepare for the next iteration of the Coast Guard aviation service in line with the Public Spending Code; this involved an extensive consultation process with all key State and other stakeholders in the SAR sector to consider the scope and demand for the service over the lifetime of a new contract;

- a Steering Group was established, led by the Director of the Coast Guard, comprising a range of State stakeholders and independent experts to bring a whole of Government approach to scope the requirements for the new service;

- an initial Strategic Assessment and Preliminary Appraisal report was prepared by the Department and brought to Government by the then Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport in July 2020, following approval by the Steering Group;

- this report included a strategic assessment, setting out the context for the SAR aviation programme, an organisational overview, and a survey of existing policies and strategies relevant to the programme;

- it took on board key learnings from the existing service and contractual arrangements;

- it identified the spending objectives of the programme, including existing arrangements and relevant business needs;

- it also included an appraisal of various service delivery options, including the State assuming full responsibility for the service, either through the Air Corps or a dedicated IRCG Aviation Branch; both were ruled out for a variety of reasons including the level of risk which would be assumed by the State;

- the process is now at detailed business case stage which is focused on the remaining viable options; this business case is being prepared by KPMG with input from the Project Team and their own aviation expertise;

- while it is acknowledged that the Air Corps is not in a position to take full responsibility for this service on the basis of that initial assessment, the Department of Transport was asked by the Department of Defence to explore the viability of the Air Corps providing some element of the SAR aviation service;

- an Air Corps submission received in March is being reviewed as part of the preparation of a detailed business case on the entire IRCG aviation service;

welcomes that:

- the Department of Transport has been keen to ensure that all interested parties in the eventual tender process are dealt with fairly and transparently; to that end, a dedicated webpage was created on which all relevant information and updates on the process are provided to all at the same time;

- in light of public commentary which could lead to confusion amongst interested parties, a recent detailed update provided clarity to potential bidders as to who precisely is involved in the process and where they should look to for reliable information on it;

- this was intended to allay concerns as regards any spurious speculation outside these official communication channels;

- a Process Auditor has been appointed from the outset to ensure compliance with procurement and Public Spending Code procedures; the Process Auditor is answerable and reports to the Secretary General of the Department of Transport in relation to any concerns he may have with the process and is independent of any other reporting arrangements related to the procurement;

clarifies that:

- as this is part of a deliberative process which will lead to a Government decision in due course, members of Government have not endorsed any particular approach in advance of the process having been completed and a recommendation made to Government;

notes in relation to the existing service that:

- the previous tender was also subject to rigorous analysis and evaluation, involving all relevant stakeholders, including the Department of Defence and the Air Corps, which validated the assumptions underpinning the tender specification;

- the Department of Defence noted at the time that the Air Corps no longer had the operational or management experience required to run the SAR service and that substantial investment in equipment and training over many years would be required before an Air Corps maritime SAR capacity could be made operational again;

- it would be imprudent for any emergency service to base its requirements on historical data alone; emergency services by their nature must provide for scenarios that may happen even where the likelihood is low; a core requirement of the current service is a mass rescue scenario – which thankfully has not occurred but would require significant surge capacity which no other aviation service in the State could provide;

- the level of capacity available to the State through this contract is significant and has been utilised to supplement a wide range of aviation needs beyond purely maritime SAR, including assisting the Health Service Executive/National Ambulance Service, the island communities, An Garda Síochána for land SAR incidents and Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage/Fire Services in context of major emergency needs;

- the existing contract was procured by way of an open competitive tender, following extensive consultation with all stakeholders; that process was subject to independent external audit and no issues of concern were identified;

- as regards the VFM aspects of the existing contract, these were addressed as part of the original evaluation by relevant experts, including the NTMA;

- the CHC service is kept under constant review in terms of contractual performance; it was subject to a mid-term assessment to identify, inter alia, any lessons for a new service; the contract continues to deliver against the key performance measures set for it;

highlights that:

- the IRCG has a distinguished record in delivering SAR services for many decades including the management of aviation services delivered by the Air Corps and civil operators;

- the IRCG retains the services of an aviation consultant to assist in various aspects of its work; the current consultant was procured by open competitive tender in 2017 and they have provided an excellent level of service across a wide range of technical issues, including the current procurement process; its technical expertise and experience embraces all relevant matters, including Coast Guard and SAR-related issues internationally;

- there is no doubt in relation to the capability and expertise of the Air Corps in aviation matters; it is precisely for that reason that they have been involved as a strategic stakeholder in the development of this project, up and until the point they were requested by the Department of Defence to prepare a proposal to provide an element of the SAR service; in order to avoid any suggestion of a conflict of interest, their participation on the Steering Group ceased; this is about protecting the integrity of the overall process;

underlines that:

- the provision of an effective maritime SAR service is critical to Ireland as an island nation with a strong maritime sector; for that reason, decisions on a significant component of that service require careful consideration; the Government will take the required time to ensure that it procures a service that is fit for purpose, meets our domestic and international obligations, and delivers value for the significant level of investment involved;

and supports the approach being taken to this process which will provide the required input for Government to make the right decision on this important matter.”

At the outset, I wish to recognise the devotion of members of the Irish Coast Guard who have done so much to protect all of us along the shoreline and at sea. I wish to put on record our thanks to people who have lost their lives working for the Irish Coast Guard. It is well recognised that the loss of Rescue 116 was an unspeakable tragedy. Captain Dara Fitzpatrick, Captain Mark Duffy, winch operator Paul Ormsby and winchman Ciarán Smith lost their lives in serving all of us and in attempting to protect lives at sea. Some 22 years ago, Rescue 111, operated by the Air Corps, was also unfortunately subject to loss of life in Waterford. Captain Dave O'Flaherty, Captain Mick Baker, Sergeant Paddy Mooney and Corporal Niall Byrne lost their lives in serving the State while putting their lives at risk to protect others. I have seen the same thing in Clare with the loss of Caitríona Lucas, who died some five years ago on a search and rescue mission on the seas as an experienced professional working out of the Coast Guard base at Doolin.

In the context of this discussion we must be mindful of the job that is being delivered and the heroic efforts being made. While we identify the people whose lives were lost serving the State, we should be mindful that so many lives have been saved as a result of the work that has been done by various people. I know many of the people involved in the Coast Guard because there is a base in County Clare. I have friends in the Air Corps who have served the State and private operators along the way. Their professionalism and the work they do is second to none. We owe a duty to them to be careful and cautious about what we say and how we portray the next iteration of a contract that is to be issued. We need to be mindful of all of that.

I believe that the Private Members' motion put forward makes several unjustified claims relating to Ministers having a favoured position in respect of the ongoing procurement process and with regard to the specifications of the existing service. I believe the amendment sets out the basis for steps being taken in respect of the process to ensure it is rigorous, evidence-based and compliant. The process is following all the required steps of the public spending code for current expenditure appropriate to a service such as this. It has involved all key State and non-statutory stakeholders, including the Department of Defence and the Air Corps, from the outset. As I understand it, the project team leading this has all the expertise available to it for this stage of the process, including aviation expertise, relevant helicopter search and rescue experience and regulatory experience. The team also involves KPMG with a strong record in similar business case development.

Stakeholder engagement, including market interest engagement, has been extensive and more than adequate for the purposes of this project. A process auditor has been involved from the outset to ensure the process is compliant. Therefore, claims relating to the adequacy of the expertise available to the Department are unjustified. It is important that we put this point on the record. I am not suggesting the claims have been made by the Senators who have spoken. However, others will take from it that somehow there is something untoward here. Senators have rightly identified concerns. They need to be addressed and I believe they will be.

The amendment sets out the process that is under way. It notes that lessons are being learned from the existing service and that future demand analysis will form a key element in that business case.

The previous tender specification was premised on an extensive consultation and scoping study that involved the Department of Defence and the Air Corps. It validated some of the requirements that the motion is seeking to dispute, for example, requirement relating to surge capacity. This relates to two or more helicopters in a mass rescue scenario and the larger more capable helicopter specification.

The existing contract was procured by way of an open competitive tender. We know that Canadian Helicopters was the preferred bidder following a thorough and compliant evaluation against the award criteria set at the time. The tender process was also independently audited and signed off as compliant at the time.

The result of the tender process was brought to Government for approval. It was acknowledged at the time that the Air Corps no longer had the operational or management experience required to run the search and rescue service required and that substantial investment in equipment and training over many years would be required before the Air Corps maritime SAR capacity could be made operational again. It was also acknowledged that there were significant difficulties in retaining the necessary highly skilled and experienced helicopter pilots. Indeed, the Air Corps had withdrawn completely from maritime SAR in 2004 following operational difficulties in the provision of a consistent and satisfactory level of service. As such, re-entering this area of operations was not considered feasible.

As for the value for money aspects of the existing contract, these were addressed as part of the original evaluation by relevant experts. The contract is kept under constant review and was subject to a mid-term assessment. It continues to deliver against the key performance measurements set in the contract. Any lessons learned from the existing contract and its operation are being addressed in the development of the procurement strategy.

I wish to comment on governance arrangements for the new service. The new draft specification was published at the market webinar in September 2020. It clearly leaves open the question of helicopter type and basing options to enable greater flexibility in the options that may be offered to satisfy the requirements. It is important in the context of our discussions that we do not seek to demonise one side or the other. We must accept the limitations that certain operators have and the opportunities for the future. The debate should not be used as a way of undermining the capacity or capability of anyone in future. That will be left for an independent transparent process. We should be careful that we do not involve ourselves in that process.

I second the amendment and I commend the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Deputy Naughton, on being here today. I welcome this debate. It is important at the beginning of our debate that we pay tribute to and thank all those involved in search and rescue, in particular the men and women who put their lives at risk to save people on a daily basis. Many of us know people who have been rescued. Many of us know people who are working diligently every day. It is to that end that the language and words we use in this debate are important. It is important that we deal in fact rather than supposition. Equally important for us as parliamentarians is the integrity and transparency of the procurement process. As Senator Dooley rightly said, it must be solid and it is important that an open and competitive procurement process is not undermined, whether here in Seanad Éireann, in Dáil Éireann, in public utterances or wherever. We all remember the infamous words of John Bruton about transparency. It is important that transparency is to the core of what we do.

At the same time I welcome the Defence Forces 400-page document put forward as a plan to the Department of Transport. As Senator Dooley said, the Air Corps and Coast Guard are important component parts. The words of the Minister for Defence, Deputy Coveney, are also critical in the context that some element of this may be given to the Defence Forces. The capacity issue is vital. It is all about ensuring that we have, as the amendment states, a clear process that deals with all people in a fair transparent manner.

I am a member of the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications Networks. Senator Craughwell is also a member and has raised the matter at the committee. We are dealing with EU procurement law. We are a member state of the European Union. The members of the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications Networks have been told EU procurement law is complex and several core principles cannot be undermined. This cannot be emphasised enough. It is about public procurement. It is about ensuring that the process is fair, equitable, transparent and non-discriminatory. They are important terms. They are not terms on a page or terms for the sake of ticking a box. They are important. That is why we have to pay heed to them. Whether it is a question of the subdivision of contracts or the division of contracts, everyone wants to ensure that we have a process that is rigorous, evidence-based and fully compliant and that the integrity of the procurement process is not in any way contradicted or contaminated.

If it was, Members would be coming in here and giving out. They would be going to the Committee of Public Accounts. They would be hauling the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, or whoever else in before a committee. Let us be careful in adhering to this code.

The engagement of stakeholders has been mentioned today. From the national search and rescue plan I am led to believe that there has been a huge scale of engagement. I welcome that. The plan put forward in 2019 is critical and should be followed in its essence because it is about ensuring there are well prepared, effectively deployed men and women who are trained and equipped to the highest level.

In his reply, I ask Senator Craughwell to name the sources of his information that many of us do not have. You referenced figures and you might tell us where you got them. Who gave them to you? Are they correct? I do not know. I am not eminently qualified but if you are going to come into the House to make claims, then substantiate your points.

Senator Buttimer should speak through the Chair.

I am speaking through the Chair. I am here 14 years. I understand the process as well as Senator Warfield.

Senator Buttimer is saying "you".

You know what I mean. Come on. You are trying to wind down the clock.

The other point is the expertise. I recognise the input of the Air Corps, the Coast Guard and Defence Forces. I do not have the expertise and I am the first to admit it, but I have done extensive consultation and reading and I have been on the transport committee with Senator Craughwell. We got legal advice regarding the matter that is being discussed here today. I am all for stakeholder engagement but the fundamental point is that we must ensure that the search and rescue service is properly staffed and the staff are trained and equipped with the best of equipment. We must live up to our relevant international convention requirements. We have a national search and rescue plan. Ultimately, what we are talking about today is the men and women who go out every day and help to protect and save lives. It is the provision of assistance to people in dangerous situations.

I welcome the debate today. I thank Senator Craughwell for putting the motion before us. It is important that, as the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney said, we recognise the Air Corps and its involvement and the value of the current contract. The Government countermotion is quite extensive. It is not just a copy-and-paste job; it is an in-depth response. I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton.

I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, to the House today. As other Members have said, it is very important that we start by thanking the men and women of the current SAR contract for their bravery and professionalism and what they do for us all on a daily basis. I also thank both Senators for bringing forward this Private Members' motion. It is very important that it is discussed. I thank Senator Craughwell in particular for his work on this issue to date.

As a number of speakers have said, Ireland's SAR system is derived from the Government's adherence to a number of international conventions and guidance manuals. In brief, these conventions impose obligations on Ireland to ensure that necessary arrangements are in place for distress communication and co-ordination in their area of responsibility and for the rescue of persons in distress. Policy responsibility for maritime and aeronautical SAR services in Ireland rests with the Department of Transport. This policy is implemented by the Irish Coast Guard in its capacity as the maritime SAR co-ordinator and by the Irish Aviation Authority in its capacity as the aeronautical SAR co-ordinator. Land SAR is implemented by An Garda Síochána.

Aside from the current SAR contract debate, on which I will concentrate later, there is no doubt that over the medium to long term, significant savings could be made by carrying out what could be called a whole-of-government air services needs analysis. Adopting a whole-of-government approach would reduce the Government's overall carbon footprint from air services and projected savings could be invested in other areas. We are aware that an interdepartmental group was previously formed to examine long-term options for ministerial air transport, but we are not aware of any group examining air services needs across the entirety of the Government. There can be no doubt that Government air services are being deployed independently of one another. The Department of Transport pre-tender strategic assessment failed to analyse a multitude of options available to the Irish Coast Guard in terms of aerial surveillance both in the State and through other EU agencies.

An in-depth analysis of all these options would, in the opinion of some we have spoken to, cast serious doubt on the requirement for privately contracted fixed-wing or unmanned aerial systems. Questions have been asked today and previously about the Department's independent aviation technical adviser. The Minister must address the experience the company has in evaluating national search and rescue contracts. In preparing the new contract, a number of experts have stated that comparisons to other countries such as the UK and the Netherlands that operate a fully privatised SAR service are misleading. The reason put forward is that both these countries maintain military forces that have a significant number of helicopters and can operate an emergency SAR service if issues arise with the civilian operator. That is obviously not the case in Ireland. The UK has explicitly highlighted a systematic weakness of having a sole private provider in its latest national review of SAR services. This is a very important point and it has not been acknowledged in the Department's strategic appraisal.

A major concern of many, including ourselves, is that there is currently limited contingency planning in place to ensure service delivery if a private operator is unable to provide a service either through strike action or, for example, through bankruptcy. It is our understanding and an issue of concern that military operations and training on land, sea and air are not included in the current national SAR framework and guidance. This is standard practice in other countries. This places an onus and responsibility on the Defence Forces to be able to search for and, if necessary, rescue their personnel. From a practical point of view the assistance of other agencies will always be requested if required, such as the Garda or Coast Guard, but it is an important point to note. The Defence Forces will need to continue to develop a certain level of capability in this field and thus the State should seek to maximise the return on any investment in the Defence Forces.

It is very important to note in this debate that security and defence operations such as intercepting drug traffickers or any counterterrorism operations, whether that be led by the Garda or Defence Forces, cannot be carried out from aircraft on the civil register. The pilots and crew cannot be compelled to put themselves in harm's way in such operations so, again, there is a requirement on the Defence Forces to maintain a fleet of helicopters capable of carrying out these duties. The training competencies and equipment requirements for these types of mission are so similar to SAR that obvious synergies across government can be achieved. We contend, once again, that such needs must be recognised in the new SAR contract.

The Government's amendment states: "the process is now at detailed business case stage which is focused on the remaining viable options; this business case is being prepared by KPMG with input from the Project Team and their own aviation expertise;"

It would be very helpful if the Minister of State could confirm to the House the name of the consultants being used by KPMG and the level of expertise they have.

This debate concerns important and urgent issues for the future of the Defence Forces. The SAR contract must begin to consider including the Air Corps and the Defence Forces. There must be a whole-of-government needs analysis of the Government's air services. Along with many experts in this area, we believe this would show that synergies can be made by incorporating a sovereign element in the forthcoming SAR contract. In the early 2000s, this country began to include a civilian provider in addition to the Defence Forces in providing the SAR contract. The military involvement in SAR ended in 2003. We, in the Labour Party, feel that the time has now come to incorporate and involve the Defence Forces once again in the provision of search and rescue in this country. This would provide obvious benefits to the Defence Forces in building up its competencies and assets. It would also ensure that the State is not beholden to one private operator and any unforeseen events that such dependency could result in. It is time to resource the Defence Forces, pay them properly and give opportunities to serving personnel. The Government must recognise that the forthcoming SAR contract provides this country with an ideal opportunity to begin this process, which is long overdue.

I also welcome the Minister of State to the House, and concur with the words of deep sincerity and gratitude of previous speakers to the people who have kept us safe. As Senator Dooley and others have said, some of them tragically have lost their lives. I commend the bravery and dedication of all our search and rescue crews across the country. They provide an invaluable service and regularly place themselves in harm's way, risking life and limb.

I commend the Irish Air Corps on its long history of service to the State, including its contribution to search and rescue operations and its current air ambulance service.

I am supporting the Government's motion today for two reasons. First, a process is under way to determine the optimal manner in which we should deliver maritime search and rescue services for the coming decade, and this House should await the results of that process and avoid unnecessary interference. The process will assess the ability of the Irish Air Corps to contribute to Ireland's search and rescue operations in the short term and bring solutions to the Government. Whatever the results of these dual processes, we must encourage in future a whole-of-government approach to aviation and ensure all Departments and State agencies work towards a common agenda. Second, the Commission on the Defence Forces is examining the future roles and structures of the Irish Air Corps at present and may make a determination on the Air Corps's long-term involvement in this field. Specifically on the Irish Coast Guard and the Air Corps, we must break down barriers between these organisations and ensure they work collaboratively. We must also ensure they are resourced adequately to carry out their important and life-saving work.

I commend Senator Craughwell for tabling this motion. As a legislator in the Upper House, he has every entitlement to do so. He is deeply passionate about Óglaigh na hÉireann's role in protecting the people of Ireland. He is deeply passionate about the Air Corps, search and rescue crews, and the Defence Forces. He has a track record that is second to none and he is an advocate of what is best. At the heart of what he wants are transparency and accountability. As a legislator, he has every entitlement to introduce this motion. It helps to make people think and to put this important issue on the agenda. Why not, at the appropriate time, question the entire process? Perhaps this is not the day for the Senator's specific motion but it is a brave, valiant effort to save the Exchequer millions of euro and, in doing so, provide a more efficient, independent and reliable service. This is what I interpret to be at the heart of his motivation, which is unquestioned and beyond reproach. We are fortunate in the Oireachtas to have individuals such as Senator Craughwell. Among them is Senator Wall, who contributed just before me. He comes from a county with a very fine military tradition. I detected since I became a Senator last year the total respect that we have for Óglaigh na hÉireann, An Garda Síochána, search and rescue crews and everyone else.

The Minister might update us on the Commission on the Defence Forces. We may have findings from it before the end of the year. Perhaps that will be an appropriate time to examine its recommendations in great detail. Perhaps in the not-too-distant future, we could have another motion on the floor of the House to determine the best long-term way forward for Ireland, in addition to the most modern way keeping in line with the most modern practices. The time is near for a fundamental review. We should not fear reviews. They should be able to stand up to robust scrutiny from us as legislators. That is our job. I am delighted the Minister is present today to answer on the motion. On this occasion, I am more than pleased to support the Government. Its countermeasure makes an awful lot of sense. I am 100% behind it but that is not in any way to belittle Senator Craughwell's motion.

I welcome this opportunity and commend Senator Craughwell on tabling the motion. I commend all those who work in search and rescue, SAR, services and in the Defence Forces on their bravery and service. The service is literally life-saving. It involves a multi-year, multimillion euro contract. The current contract is worth between €50 million and €60 million per year so it is important that all options be examined. It is important to note that there is an ongoing tender process and that we do not want to interfere with that. The tender process, however, has to be fair and transparent, deliver value for money for the taxpayer and meet the standards of the public spending code. For such a major contract, it is important that we get it right.

Others have spoken about the importance of the SAR service. As an island nation, SAR helicopters provide essential cover around our coast. About 800 tasks are carried out every year. The service is responsible for covering a huge area of ocean. The occupation is a dangerous and selfless one. Senator Dooley mentioned those who died in service, including Captain Dara Fitzpatrick, Chief Pilot Mark Duffy, winch operator Paul Ormsby and winchman Kieran Smith, who died in a helicopter crash in 2017 while assisting a rescue operation off the coast of Mayo.

The service provided by CHC and workers to date has been essential. They need to be acknowledged and commended on saving many lives through rescues and patient transfers. The list goes on. Sinn Féin believes there is a role for the Defence Forces in this area. I do not believe anyone is suggesting the Defence Forces should take full responsibility for SAR. I am not sure that it would have the capability, as such, but we believe there is a role for them.

Some commentary to date has caused concern among some existing CHC workers. This is not a criticism of the work done, but Sinn Féin would naturally prefer if the State provided essential services where it can and should. This can come as part of a much wider and much-needed investment in the Defence Forces. Unfortunately, the service has been allowed to hollow out, as is evident from the number of Defence Forces personnel on payments such as the family income supplement. We have heard reports about workers sleeping in their cars. The current pay and conditions are not nearly good enough considering the service the personnel provide. They must be improved. It is a sad state of affairs.

As the amendment points out, the Air Corps had confirmed it no longer had the operational or management experience required to run the SAR service and that substantial investment in equipment and training over many years would be required if it were to do so. This is evidence of the hollowing out of the Defence Forces by successive Governments.

I welcome the motion. I commend the men and women who put themselves in harm's way for our sake, including the men and women in the Defence Forces.

I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House. I thank Senator Craughwell for tabling this motion. It deals with an issue about which he feels passionately.

I would like to talk about some of the general principles concerning this issue. Like others, I pay tribute to all those who have worked and lost their lives in the SAR service. It is an enormously important State service. In that regard, in principle I am concerned that we are overly reliant on for-profit providers in what I view as an essential State service. I view something like this as part of a broader question that we need to ask about national security. It is in that context that I make my remarks. We need to move towards a single Air Corps SAR base that would have 24-hour helicopter response capability. We should have surveillance aeroplanes in place and we should also have the necessary primary military radar.

As we have seen, particularly in the context of the recent cyberattack, the battles we will face will be very different from those faced previously. The role of SAR needs to be integrated into other areas of defence capability.

In the context of a value-for-money audit, it is important to note that if assets are purchased by the State through a State agency, at the end of the contract, such as a ten-year contract, we would have two or three helicopters as State assets that could continue to be used. That would not necessarily be the case if a private provider is contracted to provide the service. I hope that will be taken into account.

Another issue that needs to be considered, particularly given that Covid has clearly reinforced the need for the State to maintain certain key capabilities, is that members of the Air Corps cannot strike, unlike private providers. There are good reasons that those involved in providing certain essential services are not allowed to strike. That is a factor that needs to be taken into account.

There is a broader question in the context of upskilling the military. The military has helicopters and surveillance planes. I am of the view that we need to go further in terms of what is required in that context. We need co-ordinated action through which these assets can be maximised, and that includes fisheries protection. Increasingly, there will be a requirement to use the Air Corps to address some of the concerns relating to fisheries.

In light of the direction in which we are going, particularly with cybersecurity and other areas, is it appropriate for a contractor from outside the European Union to carry out what is essentially a sovereign task? Members have referred to the systems in operation in other countries. There is a question around a service that is as important as search and rescue being provided by a contractor that may be from outside the European Union. Consideration should also be given to the capability of the Air Corps in that regard.

In the long term, we need to look at a more integrated approach and moving the Coast Guard into the Department of Defence. We should establish a national intelligence agency under civil control that would operate outside the Departments of Defence and Justice. The Department of Defence needs to take a full lead on the issue of cyberdefence.

I am in agreement with much of what Senator Craughwell is saying in terms of the principle. Obviously, I will be supporting the Government amendments and I am conscious that we are in the middle of a tender process but there are broader questions that need to addressed here around the kind of challenges we will face in the next decade, including the integration of the Air Corps with SAR services, the Coast Guard and fisheries protection services. We need to look at this matter in the context of defending our economic interests as well.

I welcome this important debate. The concerns that have been expressed need to be taken on board. I look forward to the broader debate on the Defence Forces, which had to be postponed, and to hearing the outcome of the report of the commission on the Defence Forces. That is really important. The recent cyberattack emphasises the need to invest in the sector more than ever before.

I thank the Acting Chairperson for the opportunity to speak on this important motion. I compliment Senator Craughwell on bringing it forward. It is important that there be an airing of views on all aspects of where we are going with regard to air and sea services and where SAR services fit in with those.

I come from a coastal community.

I live three or three and a half miles from the sea and we have the unfortunate and positive view of seeing these helicopters work every month. On a Sunday afternoon three weeks ago, the Waterford-based SAR helicopter had to carry out a cliff rescue at Roberts Cove and take eight people off a cliff face when the tide came in. It worked in conjunction with the local Oysterhaven coastguard service. That kind of joined-up conglomeration works very well on the ground.

Senator Craughwell raised the issue of the future of the service - where it will go, how it will get there and where it will fit into the remit. There are always opportunities to question where and when we should be changing the service. The first thing to acknowledge is that the service we have is top-class and probably unique in the global context. As Senator Dooley mentioned, several pilots and other members of search and rescue services, both private and military, have been lost in the past 20 years and they should be acknowledged. They put their lives at risk every time they are called out. Video footage of the rescue at Roberts Cove to which I referred was recorded from the perspective of the winchman. It was amazing to see where the winchman stood as the crew pulled in eight people one after another. It shows the bravery of those crew members.

This is about trying to make sure that the process of signing a new contract will be transparent and considering where the military and the air services fit in. A transparent process is very important, which is why I welcome the Government amendment. It brings great clarity. As Senator Boyhan stated, it brings much information to the process. That is what this House is about - trying to tease out these important core issues. The House should have a good debate on the motion and then move forward, perhaps through a debate with the Minister for Defence, Deputy Coveney, in the context of where this fits into the national dynamic. That is probably to where we need to push this issue. This should be the start of an important conversation because we have changed our outlook and this is becoming a country that is very much involved in the outdoors on every level. Covid has changed our lives forever, so the need for a positive and hands-on service has never been greater. I support the Government amendment. It is an important debate that this House should have.

I thank the Minister of State for being present. Having read the motion, I understand what Senators Craughwell and Boyhan are hoping to achieve, but I know from my own area the valid part played by the search and rescue service. I support the Minister of State in the context of the Government amendment because I believe it is about value for money. When we are looking at the value of people's lives, we cannot put restrictions on that. There is a tendering process under way. I understand that everything has been done in a valid way. All the various interest groups have been consulted, as have those who have availed of the service. I pay tribute to the Air Corps because it plays such a valid role in the delivery of search and rescue services and has been involved in so many rescues through the years. I commend all those involved.

The Government countermotion is valid because there are several proposals in the motion about which I am concerned. I understand that everything must be done through the procurement process and that it is being undertaken currently by the Department. I would hate for the House to be seen as pre-empting the results of that process. I wish the Minister of State, the Air Corps and the search and rescue service all the best because they play such a valid role. Search and rescue helicopters often fly over the River Shannon as it flows through Limerick.

It is sad that there is a need for the search and rescue service to be used so regularly. I do not believe we can curtail costings around it or its usage. On some occasions, there is a need for two helicopters to take part in operations on the River Shannon. I wish all those involved in the service all the best. I support the countermotion.

I thank the Senators for their contributions. This debate presents an opportunity to underline the importance of the Irish Coast Guard’s aviation service to Ireland as a maritime nation and I welcome the opportunity to set out the current state of play in terms of the ongoing procurement process which is being managed by my Department. The motion tabled by Senators Craughwell and Boyhan relates to the coastguard contract. As Senators are aware, the Government has tabled a countermotion which we contend clarifies some of the issues raised in the motion and sets out the process being followed to ensure we procure a fit-for-purpose coastguard aviation service once the current contract ends.

The provision of an effective maritime search and rescue service is critical to Ireland as an island nation with a strong maritime sector. Throughout Covid, we have seen just how dependent we are on the maritime and shipping sector for the supply chain of essential goods and medicines. It is to the credit of the sector that it has shown such resilience in the face of the dual challenges of Covid and Brexit. Our fishing sector is also a vital lifeblood of coastal communities, allied with a buoyant and growing maritime leisure sector. All three sectors depend on the reliability and professionalism of the Irish Coast Guard and all its component parts, including the Coast Guard helicopter service, to offer them a service which can deploy at a moment’s notice to rescue them when needed and bring them to a place of safety. For that reason, decisions on a significant component of that service require careful consideration. We need to ensure we procure a service that is fit for purpose, meets our domestic and international obligations and delivers value for the significant level of investment involved.

The Coast Guard has a distinguished record in delivering search and rescue services for many decades, including the management of aviation services delivered by the Air Corps and civil operators. It is leading on this process within my Department. The current contract with CHC Ireland DAC has been in place for ten years, since July 2012, with an option to extend for a period of up to three years to 2025. The contract has been extended initially for one year, to July 2023, to facilitate a seamless transition from one service to another.

Given the significant lead-in time for a procurement of this scale and importance and to ensure we are in compliance with the public spending code, the process for scoping the new service commenced in November 2019. A steering group chaired by the director of the Irish Coast Guard was established. The group comprises all key State stakeholders, including the Department of Defence and, formerly, the Air Corps. It has aviation, legal, procurement and economic appraisal advice available to it.

The Department conducted an extensive consultation process with all key State and other SAR stakeholders to consider the scope and demand for the service over the lifetime of a new contract. A strategic assessment and preliminary appraisal was undertaken which took account of all the various inputs. This was agreed by the steering group and brought to Government in July 2020. The report set out the context for the Coast Guard’s aviation programme and considered the wider whole-of-government needs, including a survey of existing policies and strategies relevant to the programme. It took on board key lessons from the existing service and contractual arrangements. It identified the spending objectives of the programme, including existing arrangements and relevant business needs. It also included an appraisal of various service delivery options, including the State assuming full responsibility for the service, either through the Air Corps or a dedicated Irish Coast Guard aviation branch. Both those options were ruled out for a variety of reasons, including the level of risk that would be assumed by the State.

We are now in the next phase of the public spending code, which is the preparation of a detailed business case for Government. This is being carried out by KPMG with input from the Department’s project team and external aviation expertise.

It was acknowledged that the Air Corps was not in a position to take full responsibility for this service on the basis of that initial assessment, which was agreed by the Department of Defence. However, at the request of the Department of Defence in November, my Department agreed to explore the viability of the Air Corps providing some element of the SAR aviation service as part of this business case process. An Air Corps submission received in March this year is being reviewed as part of the preparation of that detailed business case. We expect this process to be completed in the coming months and a memorandum brought to Government which will recommend a preferred option and a procurement strategy to achieve that, based on that business case.

The motion calls into question the expertise available to the Coast Guard. To be clear, the Coast Guard has decades of experience in managing aviation services, whether through the Air Corps or a civil operator since 2004. To assist in certain aspects of this work, it retains the services of an aviation consultant. The current consultant was procured by open competitive tender in 2017 based on the requirements set out at that time. It has provided an excellent level of service across a wide range of technical issues, including the current procurement process. Its technical expertise and experience embraces all relevant matters, including coastguard and SAR-related issues internationally. KPMG has also been contracted to put the detailed business case together and, in addition to its own economic and technical expertise, it has aviation expertise available to it to support this work.

In terms of compliance issues, a process auditor has been appointed from the outset to ensure compliance with procurement and public spending code procedures. The process auditor is answerable to and reports to the Secretary General of my Department regarding any concerns he may have with the process and is independent of any other reporting arrangements related to the procurement.

As the Government countermotion makes clear, there is no doubt with regard to the capability and expertise of the Air Corps in aviation matters. It is precisely for that reason that it was involved as a strategic stakeholder in the development of this project until it was requested by the Department of Defence to prepare a proposal to provide an element of the SAR service. In order to avoid any suggestion of a conflict of interest, its participation on the steering group ceased. This is about protecting the integrity of the overall process. I am satisfied that the process under way in respect of the development of the new service is robust, rigorous and fit for purpose.

The motion refers to issues relating to the existing contract with CHCI and the manner in which the tender process was conducted. The Government countermotion seeks to correct some of the claims made and set the record straight. The existing contract with CHCI was procured by way of an open competitive tender following extensive consultation with all stakeholders. That process was subject to independent external audit and no issues of concern were identified. As regards the value for money aspects of the existing contract, these were addressed as part of the original evaluation by relevant experts, including the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the National Treasury Management Agency.

The CHCI service is kept under constant review in terms of contractual performance. It was subject to a mid-term assessment in 2018 to identify, inter alia, any lessons for a new service. The contract continues to deliver against the key performance measures set for it. This is not a fixed-cost contract. There are agreed monthly standing charges and there are variable elements on top of that. There are costs associated with modifications which are agreed with the Irish Coast Guard. There can be other additional costs, all of which are provided for in the contract terms. The contract costs, on average, approximately €57 million per year, which is broadly in line with expectations at the outset.

For clarity, the requirements set out for the current tender were also the subject of extensive consultation. The assumptions and recommendations as regards these requirements, whether for surge capacity or increased range, were all agreed and validated by the helicopter study group which comprised all key State stakeholders, including the Department of Defence and the Air Corps.

It would be imprudent for any emergency service to base its requirements on historical data alone. Emergency services by their nature must provide for scenarios that may happen, even where the likelihood of such scenarios is low.

A core requirement of the current service is a mass rescue scenario, which thankfully has not occurred but would require significant surge capacity which no other aviation service in the State could provide.

As for Air Corps participation, the Department of Defence noted at the time that the Air Corps no longer had the operational or management experience required to run the SAR service required and that substantial investment in equipment and training over many years would be required before an Air Corps maritime SAR capacity could be made operational again.

The level of capacity available to the State through this contract is significant and has been utilised to supplement a wide range of aviation needs beyond purely maritime search and rescue, including assisting the HSE, the National Ambulance Service, the island communities, An Garda Síochána for land SAR incidents and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the fire services in context of major emergency needs.

The existing service was procured using a sound rationale and validated assumptions for potential demand. The tender process was considered robust and compliant and the terms of the resulting contract were competitive and based on a thorough evaluation of the respective bids. The contract represented the best value available from the market at the time.

The current procurement process is adhering closely to all the required steps of the public spending code for current expenditure appropriate to a service such as this. It has involved all key State and non-statutory stakeholders.

The project team leading this has all expertise it needs for this stage of the process including aviation expertise with varied and relevant helicopter, SAR and regulatory experience as well as KPMG with a strong record in similar business case development.

My Department has been keen to ensure that all interested parties in the eventual tender process are dealt with fairly and transparently. In the interests of transparency, the Department held a public webinar in September which provided analysis to date to all interested parties. A dedicated web page was created on which all relevant information and updates on the process are provided to everyone at the same time. This is in addition to broadcasts submitted via eTenders to the market. This is the place to find reliable information on the process.

I endorse the approach being taken my Department to this process which will provide the required input for the Government to make the right decision on this important matter. Therefore, I ask Senators to support the Government’s amendment.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. I take into account what she has said and if it has not been done already, I am quite happy to second the Government's amendment. What she has said gives us an insight into the services provided.

This is a very strange debate to be having. We know a tender process is under way and yet a House of the Oireachtas is discussing what some of us believe the outcome of that tender process should be, which I believe is entirely inappropriate. I do not understand why we are doing that. I do not cast any aspersions on Senator Craughwell in that regard. This is an important issue that should be discussed; I have no difficulty with that. The tenor of this debate has been very much a qualitative analysis of what we see as the two competing interests in that tender process. I am slightly uncomfortable with that. I have listened to what the Minister of State has said and she has cleared up many of the issues for me in that regard.

I would like to address some of the issues I have heard mentioned in the debate. I am a great admirer of the Defence Forces in general and of the Air Corps specifically. They do us all an enormous service on a regular basis and we can be very proud of what our Defence Forces do both at home and internationally. However, a distinction must be made between the search and rescue role of the Defence Forces and that of civilian teams. It has been bandied about whether other countries have civilian or military facilities. I know the UK, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway and Australia have civilian services. I understand that the international trend in search and rescue is to move away from a military basis towards a civilian-run service.

There are very good reasons for that. It is because the Air Corps already has a considerable amount of work to do. It is busy with obligations it has to the State, including troop movements and other activities. It already has a job and it makes absolute sense that it would not be tasked in addition to that work with the enormous responsibility of providing a constant service, not just now when I need it but every minute of every hour of every day of every week of every year. That is what SAR must be because if that is not what it is, it will cost lives. To put that burden on the Air Corps would be very substantial. That is why, internationally, SAR is increasingly becoming a civilian capacity with experts in search and rescue, and governments paying the associated costs. I think everybody agrees with that.

I am concerned about some of the comments suggesting that the Coast Guard has in any way failed us. We are incredibly lucky to have an organisation such as the Coast Guard, which is staffed and run by people who are enormously professional, tremendously competent and have a fantastic track record.

Much has been made of the fact that CHC is the company responsible for running the SAR service. CHC is an Irish company with Irish employees - more than 130 Irish residents who pay taxes here. It is a registered company in this country. Although CHC stands for Canadian Helicopter Company, it is an Irish company in no uncertain terms. All the people who supplied the Sikorsky helicopters around the coast of Ireland are Irish. I have met them.

I am from a coastal community. I know people who have been saved by them in Dún Laoghaire, Sandymount Beach and Dalkey Sound. I know individuals who have been lifted from the water to safety by these people. They live in my area. They live in Dublin. People who staff the Sligo base live in the north west and the people who staff the Waterford base live in the south east. The people who operate in Shannon live in Clare and Limerick. They are Irish people and CHC is an Irish company. I would be deeply unhappy at the suggestion that there is any deficit in the services provided by Coast Guard or CHC because I see no evidence for that.

Obviously, we are aware of a disaster that occurred some years ago off the coast of Mayo. Apart from that, however, I am not aware of any controversy in the delivery of the service. My understanding is that it has always complied with the terms of the contract and the obligations placed on it by the State, which is very important. We can rely on its track record of availability and service ability.

The other complication that exists is that while we have four bases and five helicopters to cover the Republic of Ireland, they also operate beyond the Republic of Ireland. They serve our coastal waters, where they often need to interact with vessels from other countries. More importantly, they serve adjacent jurisdictions, such as Northern Ireland and parts of the Irish Sea that are not under Irish jurisdictional control or even to the north of Northern Ireland. I do not know if that is a job that can be done by a military facility. I do not know how happy the United Kingdom would be to have an Irish military SAR aircraft flying along the coast of Antrim or something like that. It happens at the moment, but it is done by civilian aircraft under contract with the Irish Government.

As I said at the outset, I am surprised that we are having this debate. When this process comes to pass, it is important that we look at it on the basis of measurable, clear, fair and open terms, as the Minister of State indicated. The people proposing the motion and those responding to it all want a solid, reliable search and rescue service because we know that keeps our citizens and our residents safe. That is what has been happening. The process that is put in place must be fair and transparent in that regard and must deliver, after the fact, a service to exactly the same quality as that currently available.

I welcome the Minister of State. I thank her for her comprehensive response to the motion. I pay tribute to the men and women who serve this country with great diligence, professionalism and bravery day in and day out, 365 days a year, be they with the Air Corps or CHC, which won the contract nearly ten years ago to operate the SAR service for the country.

I acknowledge the service personnel who paid the ultimate sacrifice in trying to protect and save lives, in particular the crews of Rescue 111, which crashed in dense fog off the coast of Tramore, not too far away from where I live, in 1999, resulting in the deaths of Captain Dave O'Flaherty, Captain Michael Baker, Sergeant Paddy Mooney and Corporal Niall Byrne, and Rescue 116 which was involved in the accident at Blackrock Island off the coast of County Mayo and resulted in the deaths of pilot Dara Fitzpatrick, whom I had the pleasure of meeting many times during my two terms as Mayor of Waterford when she was expertly providing the service from Waterford Airport, co-pilot Mark Duffy, winch operator, Paul Ormsby and winch man, Ciáran Smith.

Like Senator Ward, I question if it is right that we are having this debate at a time when the commercially sensitive tender process in regard to this service is about to commence. However, this debate does give us the opportunity to acknowledge the excellent work that, as stated by Senator Ward, goes on every minute of every day in this country, by our search and rescue personnel. The tender process will provide a contract which will come into play from 2022. As mentioned by the Minister of State, the current contract can continue until 2025 if necessary. The motion calls into question the adequacy of the process which is currently under way to deliver the required evidence basis for the Government decision. It calls on the Government to assign responsibility for the delivery of the new service to the Air Corps. The motion pre-empts the outcome of a process regarding the new service which has been under way for 18 months and is nearing completion and following which the tender process will commence. As politicians, we cannot interfere in a sensitive tender process. However, I would point out to the Minister of State that the bases at Dublin, Sligo, Shannon and Waterford have served this State very well. The crew operating from those bases have served the State well too. I accept that the State does not have a direct role in where those bases are located because the contract is between CHC and the individual airports, but I would ask that it be fed-in that the geographic location of those bases allow for quick response times across the entire coast and the English Channel. I refer to the New Ross area, which has suffered many tragedies down through the years in terms of shipping accidents. It is right and proper that the State would get value for money regarding the contract to provide search and rescue services. It is a significant contract, worth approximately €50 million to €60 million per annum for ten years. For that reason, we must be cautious about every word we utter in this Chamber and outside it. We cannot have a situation where a contract that is due to be awarded would be put in jeopardy or challenged by an unsuccessful contractor as a result of some of the utterances of politicians. We must be careful and respect the independent and transparent process that is under way.

I thank the Minister of State for her comprehensive reply. I reiterate my thanks to all of the service personnel, past and present, who provide a world class search and rescue service for our citizens and those from foreign shores in need of their service, in particular those involved in the fishing industry. Search and rescue services in Ireland are involved in over 800 call-outs and 200 incidents per annum.

It is a massive responsibility, one that I know the Minister of State takes seriously. I wish her and the officials involved in the sensitive tender process every success with it in the coming months.

I call on Senator Craughwell to respond to the debate.

The primary concern in any search and rescue situation is the individual or individuals on top of a mountain or in the sea who need rescuing. They do not care who rescues them. They could not care less.

There has been some talk in this debate about surge capacity. It is a nonsense argument because when the Costa Concordia went down in Italy helicopters from all over got involved in the rescue operation. There is no historical evidence to back up the requirement for a surge capacity. If it was required, every asset in the country and in the UK would be brought in to bear on it. With respect to flying into the UK, which was raised by Senator Ward, we do it all the time. Every day of the week we fly people over and back to the UK on military aircraft. We are called on by Northern Ireland to help there to fight fires. There is no difficulty about cross-border issues.

I did not speak about Rescue 116 because I thought it was inappropriate, but I will do so now because it has been already mentioned today. That horrific accident, which happened over four years ago, has not yet been reported on. I join with the Irish Air Line Pilots Association and the European Cockpit Association in calling on the Minister of State to issue the report. It is vitally important that following an air accident a report is issued speedily in order that we can learn the lessons.

The Minister of State spoke about KPMG advising on the business case. Can she confirm if it is Frazer-Nash, the experts employed by KPMG? It is important we know the answer to that question. Yesterday, the Secretary General of the Department of Transport told the Committee of Public Accounts that after ten years the taxpayer had nothing in terms of assets to show for a spend of €60 million per annum, or €1.1 million per week. The officials were unable to point to what we got for the €34.5 million of capital expenditure. There was no satisfactory answer given to the Committee of Public Accounts yesterday as to whether the Department forensically checks the historical and current company accounts and balance sheets of would-be contractors to the Irish Coast Guard.

Earlier, Senator Buttimer asked me to put up or shut up with regard to the numbers. The statistics I have highlighted today are freely available in the public domain. There is no need to hide them. Senator Buttimer also mentioned that this matter had come before the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications and that it had declined to pursue it. The legal advice to that committee is that it does fall within the remit of an Oireachtas committee to oversee what is going on in a Department with respect to spending. I call on the Minister of State to write to the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications requesting that it do that. The public has a right to know that the process that is being followed is 100% transparent. As mentioned by many of the speakers today, this is about transparency.

I may be wrong, but I heard anecdotally that during a recent meeting Defence Forces officers were refused entry for fear of corrupting the system. Contrary to what we are being led to believe, the Defence Forces would not have to tender to be part of the search and rescue service. They would be tasked by the Government to do that. The Defence Forces do not tender for anything. If Government wants them to do something, it tasks them to do the job. That is not in breach of any EU regulation and so on.

There is a lot of flattery in this House of the Defence Forces. I am not saying that is the case today necessarily, but there is a lot of flattery of them. The Defence Forces are available 24-7, 365 days of the year, ready, willing and able. The one thing they cannot do, but a private contractor can do, is strike. The Air Corps would not, at any time, be found wanting.

I have one thing to say about resilience. We have five Sikorsky S-92 helicopters. What is wrong with having a couple of AugustaWestland AW139s? The answer relates to resilience. If a Sikorsky is grounded due to a technical issue, as happens in aviation, there would be a second line of support in place. Ultimately, the Air Corps should be involved in SAR to protect this State in all circumstances.

Amendment put and declared carried.
Motion, as amended, put and declared carried.
The Seanad adjourned at 5.46 p.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Monday, 31 May 2021.