Wednesday, 15 June 2005
Lost at Sea Scheme.
Question 6: To ask the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources if he will re-open the lost at sea scheme in view of the Ombudsman's office recently describing it as seriously deficient and flawed due to the way in which it was advertised; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [19887/05]
Question 13: To ask the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources his views on the operation of the lost at sea scheme, which operated for six months following its launch in 2001; if his attention has been drawn to the fact that only six out of 67 applicants in this scheme qualified for compensation; his reaction to a recent Ombudsman's report that labelled the scheme seriously deficient and flawed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [19913/05]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 6 and 13 together.
The lost at sea scheme was introduced in June 2001, following consultation with the fishing industry representative organisations, to enable qualifying applicants under the scheme to receive replacement capacity in respect of fishing boats lost at sea between 1980 and the establishment of the fishing boat register in 1990. The closing date for receipt of applications was 31 December 2001.
Due to the obligation on Ireland to ensure that the capacity of the Irish fishing fleet did not exceed EU-determined capacity limits, the terms of the scheme were quite specific. All applications received were assessed in accordance with the terms of the scheme. The Department is currently engaged in correspondence with the Office of the Ombudsman regarding a specific application under the scheme. Pending the conclusion of this correspondence, I do not wish to comment on the Ombudsman's views. It would be improper of me to do so.
Due to changes in EU rules that have been introduced since the scheme was launched, it would not be possible to re-open it. The allocation of further capacity under the scheme would now be in breach of EU legislation in so far as vessels would be licensed and entered on the fishing boat register without the removal of equivalent capacity from the register. In addition, this EU legislation prohibits the re-introduction of fishing-boat capacity on the basis of the removal of capacity supported by public aid.
I compliment Jim Higgins MEP on referring this matter to the Ombudsman's office. The Ombudsman's report labelled the scheme seriously deficient and flawed due to way in which it was advertised. This is a very damning statement. Does the Minister of State admit that the system was flawed and that the scheme should have been advertised properly? What is the position on the tonnage and licence of a boat after it is sunk? This is fundamental to the case in question, which we cannot discuss.
The Office of the Ombudsman made a statement some time ago on the illegal charging of long-term patients in nursing homes. It put down a major marker and the Government ignored it at its peril. The lost at sea scheme was not advertised in the national press. Does the Minister of State not feel this restricted the number of applicants who could have applied for compensation under the scheme?
The Ombudsman's statement that the scheme is both deficient and flawed is in the public arena but I am quite confident that neither the Minister who was responsible nor the officials set out to advertise it in papers that would not be read by interested parties and those whose vessels were lost at sea. I take the point the in the case of a number of the vessels that were lost at sea, family members of those concerned who did not carry on the tradition may not have seen advertisements in the papers.
The Deputy asked about taking boats off the register. The boats would have been on the register for a specific period — I do not know how long — and eventually they would have been removed therefrom. The boats that were successful under the lost at sea scheme would have added to our capacity and tonnage. The decision in 1990 to establish a fishing boat register has confined us to the upper limits.
I am aware of the case in question and I have a fair amount of detail on the background thereto. It would be fair if due process took its course and we awaited the outcome of the correspondence between our office and that of the Ombudsman.
How widely was the scheme advertised? Was it advertised in national newspapers? Is it possible that it was not advertised in the Minister of State's county? Who were the six applicants who qualified for compensation out of 67? Where were they from? It was alleged that some of the beneficiaries of the scheme were from the constituency of the Minister of State's predecessor, Deputy Fahey, Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. Will the Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher, clarify this?
I commend Jim Higgins MEP on his work in respect of the family concerned in the case in question.
I do not have the details on where the scheme was advertised but from recollection I believe it was advertised in the marine-related papers. Although I do not have this information or the names of the applicants who were successful under the scheme, I will make it available to Deputies Broughan and Perry within the next 24 hours.
We are dealing with a very important issue concerning fundamental rights and natural justice. Any scheme of the kind in question should be characterised by equity. I am sure the Minister of State is aware of families in our constituency who have suffered tragic losses but who are not aware of the existence of the scheme due to the fact that it was advertised in a very limited number of publications, mainly related to the fishing industry. He will understand that families who are no longer involved in the industry due to the loss of family members who were engaged in fishing for generations would not be aware of it.
The Ombudsman's report, which I, too, read, is fairly damning. Great credit is due to Jim Higgins MEP who was responsible for it. Given the constituency the Minister of State represents, I urge him to respond as generously as possible to the points made by the Ombudsman.
I am anxious that all schemes be advertised as extensively as possible. Although I am not exactly sure of the extent to which the lost at sea scheme was advertised, I was aware of it. I was not a Member of the House at the time but was an MEP. I know of the cases to which the Deputies are referring. The contention is that it was not dealt with at the time and that the application was not received on time. It was received in January 2003 while the closing date for applications was in December 2001.
The Department has responded fully to the Ombudsman's inquiries and has supplied all the relevant information. At the expense of repeating myself, I must state that the section of the Department responsible for the registration of fishing vessels is in correspondence with the Office of the Ombudsman. I am anxious to ensure that this correspondence is concluded as quickly as possible. I will do my utmost to expedite it but I do not believe this will be necessary.
On the lost at sea scheme, does the Minister of State find it surprising that only six out of 67 applicants received compensation? Does he believe this number to be very low? Did I hear him correctly when he said the allocation of further compensation would be in breach of EU legislation? What section deals with the breach of EU legislation?
We owe a great debt to those involved in the fishing industry and those who risk their lives day and night to service a natural resource off our coasts. It is important that all these people be informed in a very open and professional way. They should have been informed properly about the lost at sea scheme, not just through fishing magazines.
Does the Minister of State accept that all families involved in the fishing industry deserve the support of all the Deputies in this House?
I stated EU legislation prohibits the re-introduction of fishing-boat capacity on the basis of the removal of capacity supported by public aid. That is a fact.
Having been brought up in west Donegal and realising the importance of fishing, I have great sympathy for those who have lost their vessels at sea. Many of them received no compensation from insurance or the State and I have great sympathy for those people.
The terms of the scheme were quite specific. I am advised that all the applications received were assessed in accordance with the scheme's terms. When I make the information available to the Deputies, it might do no harm to include the terms of the scheme as well. There should be no misapprehension. I fully appreciate the pressures that many of these people were under. I know many of them. I am not aware whether they applied but if they did and did not receive compensation, it has been a difficult time for them.
If tonnage is not back on the register within two years, it is a question of either use it or lose it. That is well known at this stage.
The Ombudsman reported that this was the most flawed scheme ever. There was no preparation by civil servants. It was announced, guillotined and not circulated. The Department could not be happy with this. How can the Minister of State stand over it?
What happens to tonnage when a vessel is sunk or sold? Does it go back on the register? I believe the Atlantic Dawn is for sale at the moment which was granted a tonnage of 14,000. Will that tonnage revert to the national register as in the case of a vessel that has sunk? Has the Department a list of all fishing vessels lost at sea?
I want to make the same point. The Minister of State indicated that there is no possibility of such compensation under the present situation. Perhaps he would clarify that. This is reminiscent of when the Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources examined the allocation of money for marinas, also administered by the Department. The Secretary General and the staff were not able to justify the marinas selected at that stage by the Department. In that era under the then Minister for Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Fahey, it appears that a number of schemes were not operated in accordance with the standards that the Ombudsman and our committee felt should apply to any scheme working in a fair and open manner.
I cannot confirm whether the Department has a list of all fishing vessels lost at sea. No doubt, it has a list of those reported to have been lost at sea. However, it became more important to have vessels on the register in recent years when the tonnage became a very valuable asset. If I can obtain that information, I certainly will. I can answer questions generally. If there are specific questions at a later stage, I will deal with them. Tonnage can be sold, provided a vessel is removed from the register and the relevant conditions, in most cases, will attach to another vessel that is taken onto the register.
I am a great supporter of marinas——
——and the idea was a good one. Unfortunately, the issue of state aid raised its head. We have been in discussion with the Attorney General's office for some time and I have asked the assistant secretary to meet the Commission in Brussels this month to try to resolve the difficulties involved. We are providing a reasonable amount of money to various counties to assist them and give them the necessary kick-start. I will report to the House as soon as possible after the meeting in Brussels.
The Minister of State and I are aware of one case where a vessel was lost at sea, as is the whole country, and so the Department must know about it also. This was probably the largest fishing vessel every lost off the Irish coast with the greatest loss of life. Those people have not been included in this scheme. It is not necessary to search the Department for details of that particular tragedy that happened 24 years ago. The Minister of State and I are aware of that one.
Am I correct in saying that of the six vessels granted tonnage in that lost at sea scheme, 80% of the tonnage went to then Minister's constituency, Galway West? That certainly generates more questions about the rationale for the scheme.
I never wish to mislead the House. For that reason I emphasise that whatever is in the Department will be made available. I am well aware of the vessel to which the Deputy referred. I was one of the first on the scene when the news broke. I presume he is referring to the vessel that went aground off Cloughglass in our constituency as well as all the others. After a vessel is lost at sea or any accident on the water, a report is prepared for the Department. I am quite sure that all this type of information is available. As regards vessels that could be sold, the entitlements attached could have a number of days within European waters. The Deputy can take it that anything to be done will be in total conformity with the rules and regulations and in accordance with the legislation passed by this House within which we have to operate.