Dáil debates

Wednesday, 24 November 2021

Merchant Shipping (Investigation of Marine Casualties) (Amendment) Bill 2021: Second Stage


2:37 pm

Photo of Duncan SmithDuncan Smith (Dublin Fingal, Labour)

I commend the two previous contributions, in particular that of Deputy Mac Lochlainn. This is a technical Bill, but all Bills and everything we do in this House have an impact in the real world and to hear the stories shared by him brings home that fact.

On the surface, this is a straightforward task as the legislation before us is a technical Bill that it is legislating and resourcing the State to continue maritime regulations and provide for an investigative body to examine maritime accidents. The EU Commission lodged a case with the Court of Justice of the European Union expressing concern at the independence of the Maritime Casualty Investigation Board, how the board is filled and the role of the Department and the Minister. In July 2020, the CJEU issued a judgment expressing Ireland's failure to provide for an investigative body that is independent in its organisation and decision-making of a Department or Minister who brings forward the legislation that regulates the sector. Since then, we have had two resignations from the board in light of the ruling.

This legislation must provide for a Marine Casualty Investigation Board that is truly independent of those who regulate it. It only makes sense that such a division would be in place to ensure that investigations are independent and can deliver impartial conclusions that would have the trust of all.

Considerable concerns in regard to the legislation that governs the MCIB were raised by Michael Kingston, an expert in this area who engaged with the Joint Committee on Transport and Communications Networks. His testimony was extensive and unbelievably commendable. He is a man of real expertise in this area. He held the attention of the committee through his sheer depth of experience. He is one of the strongest witnesses I have ever come across in any committee in this House or other forum. Through the committee, issues relating to the legislation were discussed, following a briefing. If it was not for Mr. Kingston, perhaps the Bill would not have received such a level of scrutiny. The independence of the MCIB is a legal requirement upon the Government. The CJEU judgment has outlined this to the State, and it must be ensured that the MCIB is appropriately appointed and is independent in its brief. As Deputy O'Rourke indicated in his contribution, we cannot miss this opportunity. It would be a missed opportunity if the Bill goes through without that being done.

The board investigating marine accidents is a part-time board operating panels of investigation which, as Mr Kingston outlined in the committee, receives minimal support, co-operation, and resourcing. The board must be disbanded and an independent full-time, permanent investigation unit established with a principal investigator and a team of investigators, all of whom should be drawn from within the sector and have the appropriate expertise.

The Government attempted to waive pre-legislative scrutiny on this Bill. That action alone speaks to how the Marine Casualty Investigation Board is viewed and how seriously it viewed the judgment of the Court of Justice of the European Union. The judgment was not a good look for the Government, and by failing to provide for an investigative body which is truly independent in its organisation and decision-making Ireland would fail to comply with its obligations under Article 8.1 of Directive 2009/18/EC.

Compared with the aviation and rail sectors, where there are full-time investigative units and where far more funding is spent on investigating and drawing conclusions on accidents, the marine sector and its investigative body and processes pale almost into insignificance. When one compares the investment per mortality, it is €750,000 per mortality in aviation; €350,00 per mortality in rail and €2,700 per mortality in the maritime area. The situation does not bear comparison and is unacceptable.

We heard statements last week regarding the tragic air disaster of Rescue 116. We have seen far too many road accidents and marine accidents over many years that have shaken communities and us personally. These incidents are heartbreaking for all those involved. All of us in this House empathise with the bereaved. Losing someone to a tragedy touches many with grief and the grief should not be further compounded by a system of investigation that is not up to recognised international best practice. If we allow the Bill to go through unamended, we will have an investigation unit that is not based on international best practice.

Since the start of the current Dáil, the Air Navigation and Transport Bill has gone through these Houses dealing with similar issues in aviation. As I outlined, in our rail and air investigation systems the processes are deemed adequate and they receive ample resourcing to carry out their serious and vital work. It is our role as legislators to ensure that should people be involved in marine accidents, there is parity with other sectors in terms of how the investigations are conducted.

It is not an unfair demand to properly resource an investigative unit in the marine sector; it is the bare minimum of expectation that should be authorised by the State. Fundamentally, investing in this appropriately only serves to make our waters safer for those working in the sector. We should not be constrained by finances. When we are dealing with tragedies, we must be able to get to the truth and be able to trust the judgments of investigations.

The purpose of MCIB investigations is to examine and identify safety learnings and make recommendations on issues for the Department. With the objective to make the marine industry safer, however there remains concern that this Bill will further delay the publication of reports and their safety recommendations. This would lead to prolonging the suffering of those involved in accidents and risks delaying additional safety measures from being actioned. The Bill must ensure timely investigations are carried out. I look forward to tabling amendments, along with my colleagues in the Opposition, on Committee Stage to strengthen the Bill and make sure we have a marine investigation unit that is on a par with best practice internationally.


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