Thursday, 5 February 2004

Ceisteanna (7)

Brian O'Shea

Ceist:

6 Mr. O'Shea asked the Minister for Defence the number of claims for damages for deafness determined in court or settled out of court at the latest date for which figures are available; the amount paid out to date in terms of damages or legal costs; the number of such claims outstanding; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3304/04]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Oral answers (7 contributions) (Ceist ar Minister for Defence)

Some 16,698 claims had been received by my Department from current and former members of the Defence Forces by 31 January 2004, in respect of hearing loss allegedly caused during military service. Some 328 claims have been determined in court and 14,681 have been disposed of out of court, mainly through settlement. This means that 1,689 claims were outstanding at the end of last month. Some €273.4 million has been paid in respect of hearing loss claims, including €91.3 million in plaintiffs legal costs.

I am sure everyone will agree that the end of this affair will be a good day for the Department of Defence. The failure to provide adequate protective equipment to military personnel, with the consequent damage done to the hearing of many soldiers, was one of the most unfortunate passages in the history of the Defence Forces. Will the Minister indicate when he expects all claims to have been cleared?

It is clear that a much more definitive health and safety regime has been in place in the Defence Forces in recent years. Arrangements in this regard are continually reviewed. I would like to say that we will finish dealing with these claims soon. The back of the process has been broken and we should be almost finished by the end of 2004. The number of claims being received each week has decreased considerably. The claims received since 1 July last are being challenged in court on the basis that this matter has been in the public mind for a considerable period of time. The remaining claims are being dealt with. The matter should be almost off the agenda within a year.

I agree with the Minister and Deputy Sherlock that this was a sad episode in the history of the Defence Forces and it is important that we do not have a repeat of it — I am glad steps are being taken to ensure that it does not happen again. If I understand the Minister correctly, over €90 million has been paid out in legal costs. Is this a separate figure from the total of over €270 million that was paid in compensation? Is the €90 million figure part of the €270 million figure? Does the Minister agree that €270 million is a high price to pay? Has this amount been paid in full by the Exchequer or do those who receive compensation have to contribute? It is obvious that there have been savings in recent times. The level of compensation being paid seems to be decreasing on an annual basis. It seems that the Department and the Exchequer are enjoying considerable savings. Are the savings being subsumed into the Exchequer finances or are they at the disposal of the Department of Defence, for example for the development of equipment and facilities for the Defence Forces?

A Learjet was recently purchased using savings from the hearing claims Vote. The VAT savings came to another couple of million euro. Legal expenses of approximately €90 million are included in the total cost of €273 million. It is a substantial amount nonetheless. A significant proportion of the €90 million figure has been paid to a handful of legal firms. There are no savings when a Department has to pay compensation in this way. The State does its best to provide a significant amount of money to meet the total cost. Although there was a saving last year, we do not consider it, generally speaking, as a saving but as a drain.

Does the Minister of State have a figure for the expected final cost? Have claims been made in respect of hearing damage incurred during the past five years? Is the Minister satisfied that appropriate procedures are in place to protect against damage to the health of members of the Defence Forces and to prevent the State from being exposed again to such a liability?

Some 54 claims were submitted each week at the peak of this process, but an average of four claims are now being received each week. Just one or two claims have been received from members of the Defence Forces who joined the forces since the late 1980s. It is clear that the system which is now in operation should have been in operation much sooner. It is part of the system of maintaining high standards in this regard. As a consequence of the fairly solid base which is developing, it is extremely unlikely that such claims will emerge in the future.