Wednesday, 24 November 2021
Merchant Shipping (Investigation of Marine Casualties) (Amendment) Bill 2021: Second Stage
Darren O'Rourke (Meath East, Sinn Fein)
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. The importance of the State's accident investigative units was highlighted in recent weeks with the publication of the final report into the R116 crash off the Mayo coast in 2017, which was a report and investigation conducted by the Air Accident Investigation Unit, AAIU. This report laid out the extensive investigation carried out by the AAIU and made 42 safety recommendations to a number of parties, aimed at trying to prevent another terrible tragedy. The AAIU has responsibility for aviation accidents, while the Railway Accident Investigation Unit has responsibility for incidents on our railways and the equivalent for our vast maritime area is the Marine Casualty Investigation Board.
The MCIB was established in March 2003 under the Merchant Shipping (Investigation of Marine Casualties) Act 2000. In 2019, the MCIB commenced full investigations into ten separate incidents, which was double the number investigated in 2018. This included accidents at sea, in recreational fishing, kayaking and in the cargo shipping area. Three sinkings, six fatalities and one injury were also investigated by the MCIB in 2019. Its work is vital and I commend the investigators, the secretariat and the board on their essential work. I am, however, deeply concerned that the MCIB is not appropriately structured or resourced by the Government to a level commensurate with its degree of responsibility.
The Joint Committee on Transport and Communications Networks heard evidence earlier this year that what we need for the maritime sector is an independent investigative unit headed by a full-time principal investigator, with full-time assistance from qualified maritime professionals, in line with what is currently in place for the aviation and rail sectors. That makes complete sense. Unfortunately, that provision is not in this Bill. This Bill, as the Minister of State has mentioned, is urgently needed in order to fill vacancies left at the MCIB as a result of a European court ruling last year. In July 2020, the Court of Justice of the European Union found that the composition of the MCIB was not adhering to EU regulations against potential conflicts of interest. Specifically, this concerned the chief surveyor and the Secretary General of the Department of Transport, or their nominees, who were members of the board. Their membership could have been a conflict of interest, as the Department of Transport could be a party to any MCIB investigation. The two board members in question resigned their positions in the aftermath of the judgment and the board now comprises three members, with no process to fill the vacancies. This Bill will allow for the appointment of new board members, with a minimum of five and maximum of seven on the MCIB. While I welcome the ability of the board to gain new members and function effectively, this is just a sticking plaster when we consider what is needed, which is overall reform.
As mentioned, the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications Networks heard evidence on the need to reform and beef up the MCIB. I thank Mr. Michael Kingston and Mr. Ciaran McCarthy, who appeared as part of the pre-legislative scrutiny process on this Bill in early 2021 and provided helpful assistance to members of the committee. In his evidence to us, Mr. Kingston highlighted the financial disparity with the other two investigative units, namely, the AAIU and the Railway Accident Investigation Unit. In 2019, the MCIB spent €27,000 on investigators in the field for ten incidents, including, tragically, six deaths in the maritime sector.
A total of €750,000 was spent on aviation and €350,000 was spent on rail. These are the amounts spent on investigators in the field, leaving aside spending on administrative staff. This gap in funding highlights the significant difference in approach. Again, I do not wish to criticise the individuals working at the MCIB but we need comprehensive reform and proper resourcing to bring it into line with the two equivalent accident investigative units.
The function of the MCIB is to examine and carry out investigations into all types of marine casualties to, or on board, Irish registered vessels worldwide and other vessels in Irish territorial waters and inland waterways. Ireland’s maritime area is seven times the size of its landmass, with 7,500 km of coastline, not to mention our inland waterways. It is a vast area with complex and often dangerous vessel movements and we need a fully resourced investigative unit to match this.
Brexit has resulted in a huge increase in the number of direct shipping routes to the Continent, which is welcome. There are now 44 direct ferry routes between Ireland, France and the Benelux countries, up from just seven before Brexit. While thankfully we do not see many accidents in this area, it is a significant increase in the number of vessels, vehicles and personnel using our ports and taking longer journeys at sea, which will undoubtedly give rise to the potential for an increase in accidents. In addition, it is the State’s ambition to develop 5 GW of offshore wind power over the next decade. This will see a huge increase in activity at our ports and construction in our seas to build the offshore wind turbines. Again, this will result in a significant increase in vessel and personnel movements and more complex operations to install the turbines offshore. I am not suggesting this cannot be done safely but with such a major increase in activity in this area, it is absolutely appropriate to have a fully funded and adequately resourced maritime investigative unit to try to reduce the number of potential incidents and ensure that any accidents are investigated and learned from quickly.
The need for codification of marine law has also been highlighted previously but this Bill does not do that. The Bill refers to Merchant Shipping Acts going back as far as 1894. Some of this law was drafted before the State came into existence and when the merchant shipping fleet would have been largely sailing ships, not even steamships, not to mention the diesel ships that we have today. It is very difficult for stakeholders to untangle the complex web and find out what is required of them, which can only have a highly negative impact on compliance. It is clear this area is crying out for codification but the Government has said it will get back to it later as it needs to progress this particular Bill quickly.
In its pre-legislative scrutiny report, the Oireachtas committee stated that it welcomed the commencement of the Department’s review into our national marine investigation framework and looked forward to receiving a copy of the Clinch report as soon as possible. When will we see that report? We are very anxious to see it. The Minister of State referenced it in her opening remarks. It is important that committee members see it in advance of the Committee Stage debate on this Bill during which we will want to submit various amendments.
Sinn Féin recognises that this is important, technical legislation but as it is presented, it is a missed opportunity. It should have gone further and addressed the fundamental weaknesses, outside of the structural pieces, in the MCIB. We acknowledge that the Clinch report is complete and that we have a tentative commitment from the Government to consider legislation in the time ahead but we need to see more. We will be bringing forward amendments on Committee Stage that will enshrine that commitment in this legislation. I look forward to working with the Minister of State, members of the committee and other Members across this House to improve this legislation. It is necessary legislation and the measures provided thus far are necessary in terms of compliance with European law but we have a long way to go to deliver an investigative framework and system that is fit for purpose.