Dáil Éireann - Volume 566 - 14 May, 2003

Ceisteanna – Questions. - Ministerial Transport.

  1. Mr. Rabbitte asked the Taoiseach the procedures in place in his office for sanctioning requests by Ministers or others for the use of Air Corps aircraft that constitute the ministerial air transport service; the criteria used in determining whether to sanction such a request; his plans to review the criteria used for the use of Air Corps aircraft; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8766/03]

  2. Mr. Kenny asked the Taoiseach the procedures in his office for the use by Ministers of the Government jet; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9530/03]

  3. Mr. Sargent asked the Taoiseach the procedures in place in his office for the use of Air Corps aircraft under the ministerial air transport service; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [9685/03]

  4. Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin asked the Taoiseach the procedures in his office for the use of the Government jet by Ministers. [12811/03]

  5. Mr. J. Higgins asked the Taoiseach the procedures in place in his office relating to the use of Air Corps aircraft by Government Ministers. [13023/03]

  The Taoiseach: I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 5, inclusive, together.

  Use of the ministerial air transport service requires my approval. Procedurally, requests for use of the service are made by Ministers' private secretaries to my office and are dealt with, in the first instance, by the staff of my office. Requests are examined by my staff with regard to the need and purpose of travel, the destination and other logistical details. Any necessary clarification or further information is sought at that point. All screened requests are then submitted to me for [1077] approval. Once approved, all operational matters are settled directly by the Minister in question and the Department of Defence or Air Corps.

  There are no plans at present to review the criteria. However, I expect that the guidelines will be kept under review in the context of the purchase of new aircraft for the ministerial air transport service.

  An Ceann Comhairle: Before calling Deputy Rabbitte, I draw the House's attention to the fact that there are a great many questions on Northern Ireland. Perhaps the House will be agreeable to take a supplementary on this question from each of the Members who have submitted a question and a final reply from the Taoiseach to get on to the Northern Ireland questions. It is a matter entirely for Members. Is that agreed? Agreed

  Mr. Rabbitte: I will cut to the chase and ask the Taoiseach the position on the purchase of a new Government jet or jets. Is the Taoiseach aware that my colleague, Deputy Sherlock, recently got an answer from the Department of Defence showing that the Gulfstream IV was available on 135 out of the 136 occasions on which its use was requested last year? Is the Taoiseach aware that the rest of us were under the impression that it was a clapped-out aircraft, which, his PR department had led us to believe was in danger of coming down over Lambay Island or some such place some day because it was in such bad shape? There were reports about the Taoiseach being stranded and so on. According to the figures here, the aircraft was available for 96.7% of its requested missions – 135 occasions out of 136. Is it still the intention to dispose of the jet and what are the Government's exact purchase plans?

  Mr. Kenny: I would like to comment on Deputy Rabbitte's figures. My figures show 134 out of 135 instead of 135 out of 136. Perhaps the disparity relates to the time the petrol cap fell off in Mexico. It appears that the Department of Defence has cancelled a whole range of contracts regarding other important elements of the Defence Forces and that this is the only contract that will be signed.

  Does the Taoiseach envisage that Boeing will go head to head with Airbus on the tender for the jet? Given that the previous Government, at the time of Ireland's Presidency of the European Union in 1996, leased, or “wet-leased”, as it was called, a number of aircraft, including crew and staff, would it not be more feasible to do that, taking into account that the availability and reliability rate of the current Gulfstream IV is 96%.

  Mr. Sargent: I am familiar in Dublin North with the work of many aviation engineers and I have discussed this matter with them. Is the Taoiseach aware that Gulfstream aeroplanes have been in production for about 40 years, with most of them [1078] still in service? The Government jet has flown only 10,000 hours, about the same as an Aer Lingus A330 does in two years. That means that the jet is relatively new and requires maintenance rather than replacement. I therefore ask the Taoiseach if it is not the maintenance of the jet that we must focus on rather than its replacement.

  Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: Does the Taoiseach have any idea of the running costs of the aeroplane and the service that it provides to him and his fellow Ministers? Are running costs taken into account in determining the appropriateness of each ministerial trip? One would expect that they should be considered. Given the very serious situation regarding accident and emergency services around the country, does the Taoiseach not agree that moneys being committed to a new purchase now might be better expended in helping to create an emergency helicopter ambulance service for the more remote areas of our island?

  Mr. J. Higgins: How can the Taoiseach justify the expenditure by a small state of four million people of at least €50 million – in some estimates up to €80 million or €100 million – on the purchase of a new jet or jets when there are now scheduled airlines flying to virtually every corner of Europe to which any Minister might possibly want to go? That is where most business is conducted. Why can the Ministers not hack it like the rest of us when we have to go abroad for our work and divert the funds into the socially necessary areas that are currently crying out for them?

  The Taoiseach: Deputy Kenny asked me to stick to the content of the questions, but the trouble is that almost none of the questions asked is to do with the content. I was asked about the procedures. I am not engaged in the tendering process or the technical issues of the Department of Defence or the Air Corps, but, even if it is slightly out of order, perhaps I might say that the tendering process is under way. It is an open process in terms of the prices for leasing, purchase or any other financial arrangements. The National Treasury Management Agency and the National Development Finance Agency are involved in examining the best option. The Beechcraft, which is over 25 years old, rarely flies. It is easy enough to have an availability record of 100% when one is only available a small fraction of the time – that is my experience. I am not a technical person, but Deputy Sargent's eminent experts in north County Dublin are the same people who tell me that the mileage on our Gulfstream is among the highest of that type in the world.

  Mr. Sargent: It needs maintenance.

  The Taoiseach: I know nothing about fixing aircraft, although I should because I have waited around long enough watching the Gulfstream being fixed, but that is neither here nor there. I [1079] do not want to say anything disparaging about any of the staff because they always do their best.

  According to expert opinion, apparently aviation prices are very low at the moment. It is therefore a good time to go to the market. I accept it is not a good time to spend enormous amounts of money. However, if we can get a good deal on a suitable replacement for the Gulfstream and Beechcraft we should go ahead. If the price is not reasonable we should not do so, but from what I hear, we can get a good deal.

  In reply to Deputy Higgins, I am lucky enough to have been using Government jets for a long time. There is no doubt, I readily admit, that there are far more years behind than ahead of me.

  Mr. Kenny: The Taoiseach has not caved in yet.

  The Taoiseach: However, the Deputy's suggestion that Ministers are floating around the world with their bags on their backs is even greater nonsense than he normally speaks in this House. It is not reasonable.

  Mr. J. Higgins: Everybody does so.

  The Taoiseach: Everybody else does not do so. No Government in Europe, not even the smallest, does that. Yesterday, for example, there were six Ministers at EU meetings in Greece and Brussels. There is a range of activities to be undertaken by a large exporting country. I have seen reports in the media – I know they have to have a bit of fun in regard to these things and I never resent that – about Jacuzzis, bars and so on, but that is nonsense.

  Mr. Durkan: That would be thrown in.

  The Taoiseach: I merely want to get from A to B in a reasonable amount of time and in one piece.

  Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: The Taoiseach did not respond to my question on running costs.

  Mr. Rabbitte: The Taoiseach has managed to give the impression that we were talking about the Beechcraft. When one reads the text of what he said, he has slithered over the Beechcraft not being available when he wanted it. I put it to the Taoiseach, and I would like an answer this time rather than going around the house to avoid the issue, that the answer to Deputy Sherlock was that the Department of Defence shows that the Government's Gulfstream IV was available for 134 out of 135, or 99.26%, of its requested missions last year. Is that the case or is it not? The Taoiseach has again created the impression that he was on the tarmac while blokes were under the Gulstream 4 with spanners trying to fix it before he got on board. Why create the impression that there is something defective about the jet? Is this answer from the Minister [1080] for Defence, Deputy Smith, correct? Was the jet available for 99.6% of the missions requested? Let us not confuse this with the Beechcraft the helicopter or anything else. What is the story on the Gulfstream IV? Has the Taoiseach examined the possibility and is he minded to go down the road of leasing, which would release a lot of money for urgent purposes at the moment?

  The Taoiseach: I have no doubt that the answers given to Deputy Sherlock by the Minister for Defence are correct. I have no difficulty whatever with leasing arrangements or whatever proves most effective. Deputy Rabbitte can disagree if he wishes, but our system is inefficient, given the way it operates and that groups are always split and people have to travel the previous night when the whole group could travel in the morning. We should be able to carry journalists as every other country does and they would pay for that. That would be far more efficient and effective. If that can be done by leasing or under any other arrangement – there are many possible financing arrangements and we should be able to get a good deal – it should be done. If we cannot get a good deal we cannot do so.

  We need a replacement. From what I have heard about the Gulfstream, it is not efficient. There are problems of refuelling and maintenance. Perhaps Deputy Sargent is right, but there are many practical difficulties of which I am aware because I sign all the requests and I know what happens in effect. Leaving out the Beechcraft, the helicopter service and so on, the current system is not the most efficient. I am told by the powers that be that this is a good time to get a replacement because prices and oversupply in the aviation market, both in second-hand and new aircraft, should allow us to get a good deal. If that is possible under the procurement process we will go ahead with it, and I am advised that we should be able to get a good arrangement.