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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 2 Feb 2022

Vol. 282 No. 7

Search and Rescue Policy: Motion

I move:

That Seanad Éireann:

recognises that:

- the Department of Transport is responsible for maritime and aeronautical search and rescue services policy in Ireland;

- the Department of Transport is responsible for ensuring that a National Search and Rescue Plan is established and fit for purpose;

- search and rescue policy is implemented by the Irish Coast Guard as the Maritime Search and Rescue Coordinator and by the Irish Aviation Authority as the aeronautical Search and Rescue Coordinator;

acknowledges that:

- a Government decision was taken on 27th July, 2021 to commence the formal procurement process for the next Irish Coast Guard: Search and Rescue Aviation Project for Ireland in line with EU procurement law governing the European Union (Award of Public Authority Contracts) Regulations 2019 (Statutory Instrument No. 284/2016);

- the Government decision was based on a detailed appraisal and business case prepared by KPMG, with the assistance of Frazer-Nash Consultancy, for the Department of Transport;

- on 22nd December, 2021, the Government commenced the first stage of the tender process by releasing a Pre-Qualification Questionnaire (PQQ) and Response document;

- on 23rd and 24th December, 2021, following queries from the market, several addendums to the PQQ were published;

notes:

- the PQQ states that the minimum requirement is three helicopters and a fixed-wing aircraft on standby for Coast Guard aviation tasking;

- the number of bases and their location are not specified in the PQQ - instead it states that proposals will be reviewed on their merits and ability to respond in a timely manner, thereby placing the onus on the tendering company to configure the base structure for the national search and rescue provision;

expresses its concern that:

- there is an inherent contradiction in paragraph 1.6 of the PQQ which, while including a provision to potentially issue a separate contract for fixed-wing as an ‘administrative’measure, the stated intent is to ultimately select just one proposal to provide the whole service, thereby effectively precluding the Irish Air Corps from providing any part of the next search and rescue service contract;

- the failure of the Department of Transport to clearly state its strategic requirements may result in legal action from a failed tendering entity and also lead to the closure of at least one of the current bases;

- the Department of Transport fails to recognise the Report of Economic and Financial Evaluation Unit which agrees that a four-base structure including Dublin, Waterford, Shannon and Sligo is optimal for Ireland;

- there is also no evidence, as recommended by the Economic and Financial Evaluation Unit, that the appraisal process for the next search and rescue contract has been significantly improved or that a full value-for-money analysis of the existing contract has been carried out;

- the completed acquisition by CHC Group LLC of Offshore Helicopter Services UK Ltd., Offshore Services Australasia Pty Ltd., and Offshore Helicopter Services Denmark A/S (previously part of Babcock International plc’s corporate group), may reduce the number of companies eligible to tender for the next Irish Search and Rescue and may limit competitiveness in tendering;

- despite the Frazer-Nash Consultancy Report 2019 on the operation of Irish National Search and Rescue identifying several weaknesses and proposing thirteen specific actions, just four have been completed and published to date;

- the Service Level Agreements with the Department of Defence for the provision of fixed-wing Search and Rescue top cover on an ‘as available’ basis was a serious flaw in the last Search and Rescue arrangement as it did not require or guarantee the 24/7/365 capability required by the Irish Coast Guard;

- not having a 24/7 manned helicopter base in Waterford would result in extended travel times for helicopter transfers, further reducing treatment options and outcomes for south east patients, as the present Waterford based R117 service is used as an emergency helicopter patient transfer vehicle for acute heart attack treatment at Cork University Hospital from University Hospital Waterford (UHW) when the UHW Cath lab is closed 129 hours each week;

and calls on the Government to:

- suspend the PQQ and tender process pending full implementation of the recommendations made by the:

- Economic and Financial Evaluation Unit,

- Report of the Comptroller and Auditor General,

- Report on the fatal crash of Helicopter R116,

- Frazer-Nash Consultancy Review of the Irish National Search and Rescue Framework;

- fill the vacancy for an aviation expert in the Irish Coast Guard as a matter of urgency;

- lay before the Houses of the Oireachtas a copy of the business case for the Irish Coast Guard, Search and Rescue Aviation Project;

- lay before the Houses of the Oireachtas a copy of the submission made by the Air Corps on the fixed-wing part of the search and rescue contract and the rationale for its rejection by Department of Transport;

- lay before the Houses of the Oireachtas a copy of the submission made by the Air Corps to provide for one helicopter base for Search and Rescue, the critique of the submission by Aerossurance Ltd., and the rebuttal made by the Air Corps; and

- fully evaluate the expertise of aviation consultants Aerossurance Ltd., which in 2017 was a one-person operation trading for just three years with no staff member who was a Search and Rescue pilot and/or had worked in a Search and Rescue environment.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House.

I know that in coming here today, she will have been briefed and received directions from her departmental officials, and will have been provided with a pre-prepared speech to attempt to rebut anything I say. It is vitally important that she listens very carefully to my every word. If she believes there is any part of what I say that she cannot personally defend, I advise her to throw away the speech, stop the tender process for the next search and rescue, SAR, helicopter service and order an immediate review.

This is my second motion on the helicopter SAR contract since the start of the Government. My first was in May 2021, and outlined the serious flaws, weaknesses, omissions and absences of best practice in the awarding and management of the current SAR contract. My concerns were based on the serious findings of several reports, not least Rescue 116.

We are now in a new year and at the start of a new SAR tender process. Not only has everything I called for during my first motion fallen on deaf ears, but the Department of Transport is proceeding once again with what can best be described as wilful ignorance. In her speech on the final report into the Rescue 116 air accident, the Minister of State stated that the main conclusion of the air accident investigation unit, AAIU, was that it was "an organisational accident". We know from the report that a contributory cause of the tragedy was confusion at the State level regarding responsibility for the oversight of SAR operations in Ireland and that this included the Department of Transport.

Ultimately, the AAIU concluded that neither the Department of Transport nor the Coast Guard had aviation expertise available within their resources and lacked the capacity to remain an intelligent customer. Regarding contracted helicopter operations that we are auditing, this is a damning conclusion and goes to the heart of the competence within the Department, the same Department that is advising the Minister of State today.

In turning to the UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency for solutions, the Department found a template of total civil commercial control which could be easily copied without scrutiny for use in Ireland. It beggars belief that the existing competencies within the Defence Forces Air Corps were not rigorously explored before adopting the British commercial model, including seeking further advice from UK consultants Frazer-Nash which at the time was a wholly owned subsidiary of Babcock, a commercial SAR company and likely bidder for the current competition.

Despite asking for it on numerous occasions, I have yet to see the Department's evaluation of the expertise of aviation consultants Aerossurance which, in 2017, was a one-person operation, trading for just three years with no staff member who was an SAR rescue pilot or had worked in an SAR environment. We are now in a situation whereby a single British commercial perspective on the provision of SAR has taken root. This placing of all our eggs in one basket is fundamentally flawed as it fails to recognise that SAR is best delivered through the co-operation of professional, voluntary and public service efforts. It also offers better value for money to the taxpayer.

Multiple providers of SAR is the answer, and the Irish Air Corps had the skills and know-how to operate one SAR base. This would not only provide value for money, but would also provide a secure backup for all bases. The idea caught on and in November 2020 the Minister for Defence, Deputy Coveney, supported the idea of a role for the Air Corps in the new SAR service, a position that was endorsed by the Taoiseach.

The Air Corps made a submission to provide one base on the east coast, which was critiqued by Aerossurance limited. I have already pointed out in this House that the company is a one-man operation and that the man is question is not qualified to undertake SAR missions.

The Senator brought this up on the Order of Business and he is aware of the Standing Order in regard to making people identifiable. I want him to be aware of Standing Orders 49A, 49B and 49C. We want free debate, but we also want fairness and people outside the House have a right to their good name. I want the Senator to be aware of that.

The Department has informed him often enough of my utterances.

That is fine, but the rules of this House are still the rules of the House.

Okay. The critique was sent back to the Air Corps for comment, and it is my understanding that it was comprehensively rebutted. I have asked for the submission, critique and rebuttal, and the business case, to be made available to me, but to date I have received none of them. However, I am confident that when these documents are published I will be vindicated for the position I have taken.

It is important to put on the record of the House the comments of the general officer commanding of the Air Corps regarding SAR. He said:

I feel obliged to reiterate concerns in relation to value for money given the potential significant duplication of resources and the duplication of tasks that will likely arise from two state agencies operating aircraft with similar capabilities.

Notwithstanding this, the Department moved forward with its flawed philosophy and presented a business case to the Cabinet which was approved in July 2021. I believe that the business case was manipulated to provide the desired outcome and, at worst, is a blatant effort to defraud Irish taxpayers. I wish to invite the Minister of State to reflect on the business case and consider certain questions which trouble me greatly, as they indicate a concerted effort to rule out any involvement from the Irish Air Corps. The business case compared the costs of a commercial company akin to the current service and a service supported by the Air Corps.

Will the Senator take a question? Is that permissible?

Yes, under Standing Order 39.

For clarity, the Senator talked about manipulation-----

Senator, are you happy to take to a question?

Provided it does not cost me time.

It will only take two seconds.

Time will be added on.

The Senator said that "the business case was manipulated" and was an "effort to defraud". Are they his words, which is fine, or did I understand he was quoting the head of the Air Corps?

No, these are my words.

The business case compared the cost of a commercial operator akin to the current service and a service supported by the Air Corps. In every choice available, the commercial costs were trimmed and the Air Corps costs were increased. For example, the commercial aircraft were made smaller and cheaper in the business case than the current S-92 helicopter, while the Air Corps helicopter was made bigger and more expensive. It was not allowed to use the current AW139 helicopters, despite the fact they are used in SAR all over the world.

The costs of the current service are €650 million over ten years. How is it that the business case initially assessed the commercial contract cost at €400 million, yet when the pre-qualification questionnaire, PQQ, was released the valuation of the contract had increased to €1 billion, including VAT? How can costs be so inconsistent in the three steps? Was the aim to exclude the Air Corps from providing any part of the SAR service?

The number of flying hours proposed for the fixed wing contract was not revealed outside the Department. It was, I believe, deliberately withheld. How could any organisation provide a proper estimate without this information? The Air Corps fixed wing proposal was prepared based on incomplete information, something which is only now coming to light. Why was it then subjected to an extra €40 million surcharge that was not applied to the commercial contractor?

The initial set-up costs for the next operator were costed. The Air Corps, as we know, continually trains its staff in all aspects of aviation. It has been established in the State for 100 years. It has been training with night vision technology for many years, unlike the current SAR contractor. It has a state-of-the-art winch training facility at its base. Why, then, did the business case price set-up costs for the Air Corps at an arbitrary €4 million for one base, while pricing the set-up costs for a foreign commercial operator at just €4.1 million for four bases? We need to remember that this is a notional commercial operator without any ties to or facilities in this country.

The optimal configuration for SAR in Ireland is four operational bases with five helicopters, including one in reserve. Given this requirement, why did the business case require the Air Corps to provide three helicopters to support its single base at Baldonnel? This would mean there would be seven helicopters where there are currently five.

Commercial providers are expected to provide the service on a 95% availability basis, but the Air Corps was expected to provide 100% availability. Why was that the case? I understand the business case for SAR involved bases in Dublin, Waterford, Shannon and Sligo. That is the optimal situation. When the PQQ was published, why was this changed to three bases? How does the fact that the Government has now revised that to four bases change the entire business case? It has had to extend the PQQ period because of that change.

Why must the next SAR operator have regulatory approvals, exemptions, alleviations, permits and licences necessary to provide the service in Ireland and the UK, a third country outside the EU?

Suspiciously, there is no similar or specific requirement for Ireland and another EU country to be involved. Why is that the case? Why were the Air Corps spare parts scandalously costed in the business case at almost 60% more than the exact same parts to be used by the commercial operator? Where specifically will the fixed wing aircraft be on standby? Will it be located in Ireland or in the UK? If the latter is the case, an aircraft with sophisticated surveillance equipment would be located full-time in a non-EU country.

The obvious solution is, and always was, for the Government to task the Air Corps with the fixed-wing element of the upcoming contract once it gets its new C295 aircraft. This will ensure that any intelligence that is gathered will remain within the State or, at least, within the EU. Does the Minister of State accept that in the context of the basis on which the PQQ has been published, it seems clear no Irish consortium could ever tender for this operation given the caveats contained in the document? Why is that the case? What statutory authority is the Minister invoking to provide helicopter transport for armed officers of An Garda Síochána on a commercial airline? I would love to see the statutory element of that. The original business case did not require availability for daytime fire-fighting operations within four hours of tasking, yet when we went to the PQQ, fire-fighting was included. This used to be done by the Air Corps. How has this changed the business case that was presented to the Minister by Frazer-Nash, the wholly owned subsidiary of Babcock?

As a matter of urgency, the business case must be examined and its assumptions tested. The brief provided by the Minister's Department and the Coast Guard to those who drafted the business case must be released immediately. The companies or organisations involved in making submissions and-or assessing every part of this pre-tender process, including Aerossurance, KPMG, Frazer-Nash and the Air Corps, must all be brought before the relevant Oireachtas committee to allow for a transparent assessment.

To conclude in the words of Shakespeare, something is rotten in the state of Denmark. This is taxpayers' money the Minister is spending and those taxpayers deserve an open and transparent process. It is time for the Oireachtas and its committees to examine all that has led us to this point in the process. The Minister must do the right thing now and not follow a flawed plan into the dark night. It is no secret that I do not have the business case. I have been refused it by the Department, which is an outrage. I am a Member of the Oireachtas and my job is to hold the Government to account. To withhold the business case is unacceptable in any guise and to hide behind commercial sensitivity when the decisions have already been taken is an outrage. I will pass over to my colleague, Senator Keogan.

I second the motion. I do not wish to take too much away from Senator Craughwell. I commend my good Independent colleague on his tenacity and doggedness in pursuing this issue. "Doggedness" is the right word because he is a dog with a bone, an army attack dog, and he has not let go of this issue despite all the obstacles and opposition he has faced. I am sure there are people who would rather that this issue be dropped and I am sure there have been many efforts to that effect but we are still here because Gerard Craughwell believes in something and follows it through on principle.

This is not some trendy issue that is going to get retweets and lead to an invitation to appear on RTÉ. It is an unglamorous and serious issue that on the surface appears niche but is profoundly symptomatic of a broken system with which we have lived for far too long. This is not just about search and rescue. It is about public procurement as a whole and the structures in place that shape and decide it. It begs the question of what are the standards. Are there sound principles and a logical fiscal approach to procurement? The Government has a contract with the people that their tax money will be spent in the manner that serves them best. If one looks at this single issue of search and rescue, SAR, however, one will see the mishandling that has occurred and that thousands of euro have been spent in ludicrous ways. One has to wonder why that attitude would be limited to this issue alone.

The obvious questions are how this can be allowed to happen and what we can do to change it. It is all well and good to ask those questions but there does not appear to be much sense in tasking a system with changing itself when that change is inconvenient. Public procurement has been a disaster for this country. I refer to motorways estimated to cost €5.7 billion that end up costing €16 billion. The national children's hospital, estimated at €640 million, has now passed €1.7 billion. As Deputy McGuinness, a Fianna Fáil colleague of the Minister of State, stated last week, that culture is not easily challenged or changed. Its ruling class is formidable and powerful and a network of connections with vested interests will spring to its defence. Is it any wonder there is such disillusionment with the political system? The perception is that there is an in crowd, an old gentlemen's club of untouchable figures who make decisions behind closed doors. The cumulative effect of ducking and diving and denying what the public has seen in various scandals in the past decade has been very damaging to its reputation and exposed a culture that is not becoming of this House.

For several years, the Department has deferred responsibility for the chairmanship of the national SAR committee to the former head of the UK coast guard. Consequently, I believe the decisions taken in the process to date have been weighed of the grief from the R116 tragedy, alongside a reported lack of competence that allowed a singular British commercial perspective to take root. When one looks at the facts of this case and all that Senator Craughwell has outlined, it is clear something is not working and deep change is urgently required. Former US President John F. Kennedy wrote on learning that, "The greater our knowledge increases, the greater our ignorance unfolds." That has application to the Department of the Minister of State as report after report in the past five years has confirmed systematic inadequacies and failure. The passing of this motion will send a strong message that positive change is desired by the Seanad. I commend it to the House.

I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after “acknowledges that:” and substitute the following:

- a Government decision was taken on 27th July, 2021, to commence the formal procurement process for the next Irish Coast Guard aviation services contract in line with the European Union (Award of Public Authority Contracts) Regulations 2016 (Statutory Instrument No. 284/2016);

- the Government decision was based on a detailed appraisal and business case undertaken in accordance with the public spending code;

- on 20th December, 2021, the Government commenced the first stage of the tender process by releasing a Pre-Qualification Questionnaire (PQQ) and Response document on e-Tenders;

notes that:

- the provision of an effective Maritime Search and Rescue (SAR) service is critical to Ireland as an island nation with a strong maritime sector. The sector depends on the reliability and professionalism of the Irish Coast Guard and all its component parts – including the Coast Guard aviation service – to offer a service which can deploy at a moment’s notice to rescue people in distress and bring them to a place of safety;

- the aviation service contract allows the Coast Guard meet its obligations as prescribed in the National SAR Plan, the National Oil/ HNS Contingency Plan and its capacity to support other State agencies, in particular inland SAR support to An Garda Síochána and provision of Air Ambulance services to HSE, including day and night support to the island communities;

- the current aviation service is due to expire in July, 2024;

- the procurement process is being undertaken in line with the Government Decision of 27th July, 2021, and with EU procurement law, most notably European Union (Award of Public Authority Contracts) Regulations 2016 (Statutory Instrument No. 284/2016.);

- a Steering Group was established in 2019 comprising a range of stakeholders and independent experts to bring a whole-of-Government approach to the process;

- on 27th July, 2021, the Government agreed to commence the formal procurement process for a new Coast Guard aviation service and agreed to proceed to the planning/ design stage. The decision was based on a detailed appraisal and business case prepared in accordance with the public spending code;

- on 20th December, 2021, the first stage of the process commenced, with the release on eTenders of a PQQ and Response document for candidates to complete;

- on 25th January, 2022, the Government decided to include, as part of the PQQ clarifications, additional information specifying the four bases provided for in the original contract, i.e. Dublin, Shannon. Sligo and Waterford;

- Stage 2 of the process involves a detailed Request for Tenders (RFT) specification which will be released to the selected candidates in late March;

- the reports of the Economic and Financial Evaluation Unit, the Comptroller and Auditor General, the AAIU Report on the R116 accident, and the Frazer-Nash Consultancy Review of the Irish National Search and Rescue Framework were considered in framing proposals for the project;

- the Frazer-Nash Report preceded a comprehensive review of SAR arrangements in Ireland. This process, which was independently chaired, resulted in the publication of the National SAR Plan in 2019. The SAR review process included a detailed review of the Frazer-Nash recommendations. Delivery of the National SAR Plan is monitored by the National Search and Rescue Committee, a body that is also independently chaired. All of the actions set out in the report have been addressed and if not fully closed out, have been significantly progressed.

recognises:

- the business case was formulated following a rigorous and robust process under the direction of the Department of Transport and involving all key stakeholders. The business case and associated analysis is an integral part of this process and is not publicly available as it contains commercially sensitive information and forms part of a wider deliberative process for the procurement which is currently underway;

- the procurement 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 current contract is kept under constant review. It was subject to a mid-term assessment. Any lessons learnt from the existing contract and its operation are being addressed in the development of the procurement strategy and governance arrangements for the next contracted service;

- the Department of Transport and its project team has appropriate expertise available to it, including independent experts and a process auditor to ensure compliance;

- provision of a dedicated fixed wing asset to the Coast Guard has been included in the procurement plan for the next Coast Guard Aviation service contract and there has been appropriate engagement with Department of Defence. There is no contradiction in how this is reflected in the PQQ. The stated intent is to select just one contractor until the third anniversary of the contract when the Air Corps, if willing and capable, can take over the fixed wing element. The PQQ reserves the possibility of two contracts but that is for administrative purposes only since both contracts will be awarded to the same entity, the successful tenderer.

welcomes:

- the recent announcement by the Department of Transport that it has notified the market of an amendment to a PQQ, which was published by the Department on 20th December, 2021;

- that the PQQ has been amended to specify the number and location of helicopter bases to reflect the existing configuration, namely four bases at Dublin, Shannon, Sligo and Waterford;

- that the amendment will ensure the delivery of wider Government policies concerning balanced and even distribution of State services and investment, particularly the needs of island and rural communities. It will also support and protect other public policy priorities, such as the State’s response to emerging trade patterns post-Brexit, and priorities under the Climate Action Plan;

- the fact that the continuation of the current base configuration will reinforce the Coast Guard’s capability to meet its obligations in the National SAR Plan, the National Oil/ HNS Contingency Plan, and its capacity to support other State agencies, in particular inland SAR support to An Garda Síochána and provision of Air Ambulance services to the HSE, including day and night support to the island communities.

highlights that:

- the Irish Coast Guard (IRCG) has a distinguished record in delivering SAR services for many decades including the coordination and management, as appropriate, 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;

- following detailed examination of proposals from Department of Defence, it was agreed with the Department of Transport that the next services contract will provide that the fixed wing element will cease on the third anniversary of the commencement of the services contract in the event the Air Corps is in a position to provide the fixed wing element. This will allow for the Irish Air Corps to provide the fixed wing element of the service when it has capacity to provide the specified level of service.

notes the Government commits to:

- allowing the tender process to proceed as decided by Government in July, 2021, and for the process to progress through all stages to completion without further delay;

- ensuring a competitive process by not publishing the business case, or other financial analysis associated with the procurement, at this stage, as this would jeopardise the integrity of the process and also undermine the ability of the contracting authority to achieve the best deal possible for the Coast Guard and the taxpayer;

- ensuring that the competition will continue to be run in accordance with the public spending code and procurement law; and

- ensuring that a suitable contract is in place quickly to meet our obligations to protect lives, to support communities and the maritime sector, to deliver on the National SAR Plan and to provide value for money services to the citizen.

I have not been provided with a copy of the amendment.

It is on the Order Paper.

It is on the Order Paper. I very much support the Government counter-motion. The provision of an effective maritime search and rescue service is critical to Ireland as an island nation with a strong maritime sector. The sector depends on the reliability and professionalism of the Irish Coast Guard and all the component parts, including the Coast Guard aviation service, to offer a service that can deploy at a moment's notice to rescue people in distress and bring them to a place of safety. I know full well the benefits of that, coming from a county such as Clare that has a very significant coastline. Tulla, where I live, is on the flight path of the search and rescue aircraft based at Shannon as it heads towards the west Clare area. It flies that route almost daily, either on training or a live mission.

I and others must recognise the debt of gratitude the State owes to the people who put their lives at risk day in, day out to save the lives of others, such as fishermen or people who have been overcome by an accident off the west coast or any other coast. In my opinion, the motion contains factual inaccuracies and some of the information it contains is out of date. It calls for the suspension of the tender process for a new SAR contract. That would leave a significant gap in the availability of a SAR service and that has to be taken into account. The current Coast Guard aviation service contract is due to expire in 2024 and the procurement process for the next contract is now well under way. The reports of the economic and financial evaluation unit and the Comptroller and Auditor General, the accident investigation report on the R116 tragedy and the Frazer-Nash consultancy review of the national search and rescue framework were considered in framing the proposals for the procurement process. Of course, we all rightly share the deep sympathy to the families of those who were lost in the R116 accident. The information around that was harrowing to read in the aftermath of the various reports. I have every expectation, based on what the Government has stated, that the learnings from that event have been taken into consideration in the procurement of the next service. However, for the reasons I have outlined, it would be entirely wrong to shelve the process that is under way.

To say that it is just a value-for-money issue is wide of the mark when we consider that we, as Members of the Oireachtas, have access to the Committee of Public Accounts, which will always review matters at a later stage and go through in detail the outcomes of various procurement processes and the spending of money. We should be assured that as the Oireachtas functions, the checks and balances are there.

It is difficult from this vantage point in advance the full procurement process to know what the cost of anything will be. I accept that there are indicative figures that those in the industry will know, but the purpose of having a competitive tendering process is so that those who have the skills, expertise, knowledge and know-how are able to bid to offer a service. It is then up to an evaluation committee to look at it in every respect. It is not just about value for money for me. While I accept that is important, of greater importance are the safety and lives of people who carry out the service and the ability of the service to meet the needs of a diverse area, particularly on the western seaboard where our requirements to travel very considerable distance out into the Atlantic Ocean happens almost daily. It is not just about the cost; it is about the capabilities, experience and wherewithal of the ultimate winner of that contract to meet the needs of the service.

It is also important to recognise the tremendous work that is being done at the four bases. I am very familiar with the one at Shannon and the personnel there. They are people of the highest standards and skills. They deploy at a moment's notice and they deliver a phenomenal service. While they are not State employees, they are under a State contract. They are not part of the Army. Many of them are former members of the Defence Forces and would feel they can deliver a far better service through the company they work for - with the UK model of privatisation of the service through an independent contractor - rather than through a State agency. We should also take those views into account.

I propose to share time with Senator Ward.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I question the wisdom of having such a motion on the Order Paper. It creates a dangerous precedent that this House can be used to threaten and undermine the integrity of the public procurement process. Senator Craughwell should know better than to be looking for commercially sensitive documentation during a tender process. He also made some very serious allegations both on the record of this House just now and also in an email to all Members a short time ago when he said, "I believe that at best this business case for the next Search and Rescue (SAR) contract was manipulated to provide a desired outcome or at worst it was a blatant effort to defraud the Irish taxpayers". Given that he circulated that email to all Members, I look forward to him providing evidence to that effect.

Some of the points in the motion are simply not factually correct and other arguments raised have been overtaken by events since the publication of the initial procurement documents and the recent clarifications that have been issued. I am sure Senator Craughwell is aware of last week's Government decision to clarify that there will be four bases, the existing four bases of Waterford, Shannon, Sligo and Dublin, as part of the procurement process. I compliment the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, and the Government on taking a proactive approach on this to clarify the matters. Uncertainty was created as a result of tweets that were issued, including one by Senator Craughwell saying: "I see the tender is out. Clearly, one station is not being renewed. I expect Waterford is gone." That poured fuel on the rumour that Waterford and the south east were going to lose such a vital service. It also caused considerable distress and upset in the communities where I live - coastal and inland communities. The Senator should know better than to be tweeting out comments like that.

I conclude by echoing the comments of Senator Dooley regarding the crew of Rescue 117 in my own area who do a fantastic job day in, day out. They have been rewarded for their bravery. Those four bases, including the base at Waterford, have served the State well in recent years and will serve the State well for many generations to come.

I agree with everything that Senator Cummins has said about the conduct of this debate. It is entirely inappropriate that we have facilitated this debate when a tender process is under way. In the face of some of the proposers' talking about the importance of not undermining the procurement process, we then proceed to have a debate about a procurement process while it is under way. I think it is entirely inappropriate and should not have been facilitated. In addition, all kinds of unsubstantiated allegations have been thrown out there without any evidence or backup. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

I fundamentally disagree with Senator Craughwell. We are talking about an Irish company that has in recent years saved literally thousands of lives around the coast of Ireland. This is not a new thing in this House. The Senator has repeatedly pushed this issue despite his own history with the Defence Forces. For starters, the Air Corps is not the right body to carry out search and rescue missions. It is a military body and search and rescue is a civilian function, as it is in the majority of countries around the world. The Air Corps is a body which is totally unregulated. Senator Craughwell is suggesting that the Air Corps, which is subject to regulation, take over search and rescue exercises.

This compares with the current Coast Guard operation with more than 130 Irish jobs. It is run by an Irish company and regulated under extremely strict civilian parameters through the IAA and through European regulators. It is regulated and has provided an exceptional service to the people.

Instead, we have bluster and unsubstantiated allegations. We have claims without evidence and a general thrust which is without basis whatsoever. The reality is that an excellent service is being provided by a group of civilians who are expert in this area, are regulated and are highly qualified. We owe them an enormous debt of gratitude. The Coast Guard provides a service along with volunteers in organisations like the RNLI, mountain rescue and other bodies which deserve our thanks and not our criticism. I regret I do not have more time but I put my support behind the Government amendment.

I welcome this opportunity to discuss the next Coast Guard aviation contract and to clarify a number of matters raised by Members in the motion they have tabled. As has been stated by other colleagues, I am constrained by procurement law in publicly discussing matters relating to a live procurement process. For this reason, I will not be in a position today to disclose any information relating to the procurement specifications or anything that is commercially sensitive or integral to the process. In any event information regarding the procurement process must be directed to prospective candidates through eTenders.

I also completely reject any suggestion that civil servants have set out to deliberately defraud the State and the taxpayer. The Government is acutely aware that all major procurement projects must be managed in a compliant manner and, to that end, safeguards are in place to ensure the process is undertaken in conformity with procurement law.

A representative of the Office of the Chief State Solicitor is a member of the Department's project team, and a procurement process auditor has been appointed with the express task of providing assurance to the Secretary General, as Accounting Officer, as to the conduct of the procurement process. The Government's amendment provides an accurate reflection of the current position, while also observing the communication constraints, and the need to safeguard the integrity of the overall procurement process.

There is one important point that we can all agree on. The provision of an effective maritime search and rescue service is critical to Ireland as an island nation with a strong maritime sector.

The sector depends on the reliability and professionalism of the Irish Coast Guard and all its component parts, including the Coast Guard aviation service, to offer a service that can deploy at a moment's notice to rescue people in distress and bring them to a place of safety. The Irish Coast Guard has a distinguished record in delivering search and rescue services and a wide range of other essential aviation services for many decades, including the co-ordination and management, as appropriate, of aviation services delivered by the Air Corps and civil operators. The aviation service contract allows the Coast Guard meet its obligations as prescribed in the national search and rescue plan, the national maritime oil and HNS contingency plan, and its capacity to support other State agencies, in particular inland search and rescue, SAR, support to An Garda Síochána and the provision of air ambulance services to the HSE, including day and night support to our island communities.

The current Coast Guard aviation service contract is due to expire in 2024 and the procurement process for the next contract is now well under way. There is no basis to support calls for the Government to suspend or further delay the process. Furthermore, if the procurement process does not continue, then the Government will be in breach of public procurement law when the current contract expires. Moreover, lives could be put at risk if Government allows the current contract to expire without a replacement contractor being appointed.

The business case will not be published as it contains information which, as highlighted by colleagues, is commercially sensitive or could prejudice the outcome of the procurement process. However, details of the business case are available as part of the information documentation for the procurement. It is a requirement that all tender competitions must be competitive. The greater the level of competition, the higher the likelihood of a fit-for-purpose and affordable outcome. It makes no sense, therefore, that the contracting authority should reveal its entire cost, risk and operational strategies in the tender documents or through the release of the business case or subsequent analysis of fixed-wing proposals. Publishing the business case would not only jeopardise the integrity of the process but also tie our evaluators' hands in striking the best deal possible for the Coast Guard and the taxpayer.

I would like to update the House on the procurement process. In November 2019, the Department of Transport commenced a process to prepare for the next iteration of the Coast Guard aviation service in line with the public spending code. 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 Coast Guard aviation programme, an organisational overview, and a survey of existing policies and strategies relevant to the programme. The report 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 Irish Coast Guard aviation branch. Both were ruled out for a variety of reasons, including the significant challenges of establishing such a service before the current contract expires and the level of risk that would be assumed by the State.

The process then moved to detailed appraisal and business case stage. A multi-criteria analysis was used to determine the shortlist of options for consideration on the basis of five criteria: deliverability and implementation, integration and interface, market interest and operator capacity, operator capability and enhancement of State aviation emergency capacity. A detailed financial and economic appraisal of the shortlisted options was also conducted. The detailed appraisal provided a framework to assess costs, benefits, affordability, deliverability, risks and sensitivities associated with the shortlisted options to guide the approving authority through gate 1 of the public spending code to the planning and design stage. While it was acknowledged in the preliminary report that the Air Corps would not be in a position to take full responsibility for the service, the Department of Transport agreed to explore the viability of the Air Corps providing some element of the SAR aviation service at the request of the Department of Defence as part of this phase. The Air Corps proposal received in March 2021 was considered in the business case as part of a so-called hybrid option whereby the Air Corps would provide one helicopter base with a fixed-wing component, which would then require a civil operator to provide the remaining element to meet the specification for the national service.

The business case analysis demonstrated, among other things, that there is an inherent cost implication in splitting the helicopter service between two or more providers. The single provider option can achieve economies of scale and address availability requirements more cost effectively. There is flexibility in how the fixed-wing element, which would be a new element of the service, could be provisioned. The service scoped, costed and recommended in the business case is similar in many respects to the current service but would include a dedicated fixed-wing element. This would provide the Irish Coast Guard with an on-call marine environment monitoring and high endurance search and top cover capability. It also has the potential to allow a more innovative helicopter fleet. The strategic research and analysis division within the Department of Transport conducted a technical assessment of the appraisal that determined its compliance with the public spending code.

Stakeholder engagement, including market interest engagement, has been extensive. The steering group includes representation from all relevant Departments and agencies, including the Departments of Transport, Health, Public Expenditure and Reform, and Defence, and agencies such as the HSE, the National Ambulance Service, An Garda Síochána, and the Irish Aviation Authority. There was also extensive consultation across the search and rescue domain, including the many voluntary organisations involved.

On 27 July 2021, the Government approved the detailed appraisal and business case for the next Coast Guard aviation service and agreed to proceed to the planning and design stage, including the procurement of the service outlined in the business case. It also agreed that the Department of Defence, working in conjunction with the Irish Coast Guard, would examine whether the fixed-wing element of the proposed service could be delivered by the Air Corps in line with the requirements and parameters set out in the business case and would provide the Department of Transport with a costed proposal by October, which would then determine whether this aspect of the new service could be provisioned by the Air Corps or should be procured as part of the procurement plan described in the business case.

On 3 December 2021, the Government noted proposals to allow the possibility of Air Corps involvement within a reasonably short number of years. The review of the Air Corps' capability to provide the fixed-wing element concluded that the proposal, as framed, would represent a significant expansion of Air Corps capacity beyond that envisaged at the time of the Government decision of 27 July. However, it was agreed that the next Coast Guard aviation services contract will provide that the fixed-wing element will cease on the third anniversary of the commencement of the services contract in the event the Air Corps is in a position to provide the fixed-wing element. This will allow for the Irish Air Corps to provide the fixed-wing element of the service if and when it has capacity to provide the specified level of service. This provision is reflected in the procurement documents.

On foot of a decision taken by Government last week, my Department has notified the market of an amendment to a pre-qualification questionnaire, which was published by the Department on 20 December 2021. The questionnaire is amended to specify the number and location of helicopter bases to reflect the existing configuration, namely, four bases at Dublin, Shannon, Sligo and Waterford. The amendment will ensure the delivery of wider Government policies concerning balanced and even distribution of State services and investment, particularly the needs of island and rural communities. It will also support and protect other public policy priorities, such as the State's response to emerging trade patterns post Brexit and priorities under the climate action plan.

I thank Senators for tabling this motion today and for providing me with an opportunity to discuss what is a most important issue. However, I cannot agree to calls for the suspension of this procurement process or for the release of commercially sensitive information that is central to the integrity of the competition. I reject the motion on behalf of the Government. I have proposed a countermotion and call on the House to support it.

First and foremost, I commend all those who work in search and rescue on their bravery and their service. As an island nation, the search and rescue helicopters provide essential cover around our coast. Around 800 tasks are carried out every year and the service is responsible for covering a huge area of ocean. The occupation is a dangerous and selfless one. It is also important we acknowledge the sacrifice of the crew in the R116 disaster, who lost their lives off the coast of County Mayo in 2017, and that we think of their families. We know many lives have been saved through rescues and patient transfers. The motion highlights the lives that were saved in the south east by the Waterford-based R117 service.

I welcome the Government decision to change the specifications for the next phase of the search and rescue tender to include retention of the existing four bases. It is essential that search and rescue is maintained in County Waterford. It reflects the strong representation from the south east when members across counties and parties have come together to say the existing bases are needed. It is right to point out that Senator Craughwell has been a tireless advocate for the service and was out front and centre on saving that base in Waterford, along with my colleague, Deputy Cullinane.

We know the Defence Forces have already suffered blow after blow to morale. They have been hollowed out and asset stripped. It 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 and the current pay and conditions not being good enough considering the service the personnel and the Defence Forces provide. That must be improved.

Today's debate concerns important and urgent issues for the future of the Defence Forces but also for the matters that Senator Craughwell brought into the public domain in his introductory statement. People might not like or agree with what he had to say, but the points he raised are deeply concerning for members of the Opposition. The only way in which the Minister of State and her Department can put those concerns to bed is by publishing the business case.

From the information that is available, it appears that the business case was designed in a way to ensure that the Department got its preferred choice. This raises serious concerns. We have seen time and again public procurement contracts not delivering good value for money for the public, who pay their taxes and expect the Government to be prudent with how that money is spent. We only have to look to the children's hospital and the roll-out of the national broadband plan to see how we must fight for transparency and details about how their procurement processes were conducted. From what we have heard today, it seems that the business case was deliberately designed to inflate the cost to the Defence Forces of providing the services while playing down the cost to the commercial provider.

Will the Minister of State confirm whether it will be the case that weapons will be carried on commercial flights? I am sure she is aware that that is illegal. Will she clarify this point about the business case saying that helicopters will be carrying armed gardaí? We have seen evidence of breaches of this law at Shannon Airport with US troops passing through it on commercial carriers. Photographs have been taken of them carrying weapons but nothing has been done about it. If the business case is being designed to break the law and public money is to be invested, it raises serious questions.

Senator Craughwell has made compelling arguments about how public money is being spent under this contract. They deserve more detailed answers than have been given. The main way to do that would be through publishing the business case and meeting the request that all stakeholders involved be brought to the committee for full scrutiny by committee members so that these questions can be teased out, we can get answers and we can ensure that the SAR services to be provided under the new contract are fit for purpose, good value for the taxpayer and include a role for the Defence Forces.

It is interesting that, while a number of Senators have said that I have provided information during this debate that was factually inaccurate, they have not provided any evidence of those inaccuracies. I would love for them to specify what they are.

The Committee of Public Accounts was mentioned. It is interesting to note that it and the Comptroller and Auditor General carry out retrospective analyses of badly planned and badly implemented public procurement. We never have a chance to do the job we are supposed to do in the Oireachtas. I was shocked by my two colleagues across from me who spoke about bringing this matter into the public domain. Our job is to oversee what goes on with public procurement. I make no apologies whatsoever.

Is the Senator taking questions?

Senators, please.

I did not interrupt the Senators.

I am asking whether Senator Craughwell will take a question.

Senator Ward can only ask Senator Craughwell.

And I am asking. I am not interrupting.

Under Standing Order 39, Senator Ward can ask, but Senator Craughwell is within his rights to continue speaking or to allow in Senator Ward. It is up to Senator Craughwell.

He may ask his question.

Does Senator Craughwell agree that it is not our job to compromise procurement? We hold it to account, but not during the process when there are sensitivities in the public domain.

We are in the pre-tendering process, so there is no difficulty whatsoever in calling these matters out.

My colleague Senator Cummins adverted to the fact that I put out a tweet about Waterford Airport. He stood 100% behind the Government during the debate in 2021 - everything was going to be fine and grand, and we should trust the Government. The Government published a PQQ that would see one base go and the general consensus was that that would be Waterford. Thanks to my colleague Deputy Shanahan----

Did the PQQ mention bases?

Senators, the rule is simple. Can I just-----

May I ask the Senator a question?

I will explain it. In Standing Orders-----

May I ask the Senator a question?

Would Senator Craughwell like to give way?

I know what he is going to ask, but he can fire away.

Did the PQQ mention bases?

It was put out for three bases and one fixed wing.

I am sorry. The question-----

I am going to continue now.

-----was whether it mentioned bases.

Senator, please.

Clearly, the answer is "No".

For the benefit of Members, Senator Craughwell is in control.

You are responding. Anyone who wishes to intervene can ask-----

Will he answer?

-----and will have 30 seconds to do so, but there is no follow-up thereafter.

No problem. He answered it without answering.

Senator Cummins mentioned my tweet, which led to Deputy Shanahan initially and then Deputy Verona Murphy immediately raising concerns in the south east. Deputy Cullinane then called a meeting of all elected representatives in the south east. It is my belief that my tweet led to that happening and to the securing of R117 at Waterford Airport. Senator Cummins was out on the radio two or three days afterwards talking about how he had saved the base.

That is not-----

If the Senator did save the base, I am delighted, but I did not hear anything from him over the past two years while we were discussing it.

Senator Craughwell wanted to close the base.

Senator Craughwell, without interruption.

Senator Ward spoke about how the civilian SAR provider is subject to such great regulation while the military is not. First and foremost, the military is involved in SAR all day, every day. That is what it does.

(Interruptions).

Senators, please.

Second, the report on R116 showed a terrible lack of regulation.

Through the Chair, please, Senator.

The report on R116 is damning of everyone who was involved in SAR at the time. There was no oversight, control or regulation. The entire process was a bloody mess. To come in here and suggest that the civilian provider was subject-----

Will the Senator take a question on this?

No, not on this occasion. I have taken two already. To come in here and suggest that the civilian provider was subject to rigorous regulation is a nonsense. Go back and read the report on R116 to see what it says.

The bottom line is that there is a business case, which sets out what this contract is expected to do. There is no reason the business case cannot be published. This nonsense that the Government goes on with from time to time about not being able to release something because it is commercially sensitive is rubbish. Mark my words - I will be proven right in this. Not for one minute should the Minister of State tell me that, with the level of responsibility she has over a number of portfolios, she could take the time to analyse this. She simply took her Department's word. She could not possibly have analysed this herself. The Government brings in a company to advise KPMG that is a subsidiary of a potential bidder yet the Minister of State tells me that this is an open and transparent process. How can it be? Aerossurance, the company that the Government brought in to oversee search and rescue services, is one man with three years of trading and no creditors or debtors on his balance sheet. From where is the expertise coming?

As far as I am concerned, the rescue services save lives all the time, and by God we are grateful for them, but it does not matter to the people in the sea who is coming down to collect them and whether that person is from a private operator or a public one.

Senator Ward spoke about the company involved. It sought chapter protection.

The Irish-----

The pilots involved threatened to strike in 2019. Let us be honest.

That is not correct.

Senator Craughwell identified someone in his contribution-----

The Comptroller and Auditor General spoke about the waste of €7 million-----

-----and made a very serious claim.

-----on providing night-vision technology that was not used until recently.

We are not in the Wild West where we can say things and-----

I pointed out earlier in the debate that people needed to respect Standing Orders, including the one on-----

Clearly, Senator Craughwell is not willing to respect them.

He is aware of the Standing Order and knows the consequences for breaching it.

The bottom line is that we are where we are. My final word to the Minister of State today is for her to release the business case and prove me wrong. I do not believe that she will or that it would prove me wrong. That is it. End of story.

Amendment put:
The Seanad divided: Tá, 26; Níl, 8.

  • Ahearn, Garret.
  • Ardagh, Catherine.
  • Burke, Paddy.
  • Byrne, Maria.
  • Carrigy, Micheál.
  • Casey, Pat.
  • Cassells, Shane.
  • Conway, Martin.
  • Crowe, Ollie.
  • Cummins, John.
  • Currie, Emer.
  • Daly, Paul.
  • Dolan, Aisling.
  • Dooley, Timmy.
  • Fitzpatrick, Mary.
  • Gallagher, Robbie.
  • Horkan, Gerry.
  • Kyne, Seán.
  • Lombard, Tim.
  • McGreehan, Erin.
  • O'Reilly, Joe.
  • O'Reilly, Pauline.
  • O'Sullivan, Ned.
  • Seery Kearney, Mary.
  • Ward, Barry.
  • Wilson, Diarmuid.

Níl

  • Boylan, Lynn.
  • Craughwell, Gerard P.
  • Gavan, Paul.
  • Keogan, Sharon.
  • Moynihan, Rebecca.
  • Ó Donnghaile, Niall.
  • Sherlock, Marie.
  • Wall, Mark.
Tellers: Tá, Senators Robbie Gallagher and Seán Kyne; Níl, Senators Gerard P. Craughwell and Sharon Keogan.
Amendment declared carried.
Motion, as amended, agreed to.
Sitting suspended at 3.55 p.m. and resumed at 4.30 p.m.
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