Wednesday, 16 November 2005
Question 89: To ask the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources the position regarding Irish Ferries; the way in which schemes to outsource maritime jobs will impact on the strategic direction of the National Maritime College and the Irish Maritime Development Office; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [34715/05]
Talks were held recently under the auspices of the Labour Court, involving Irish Ferries Limited, SIPTU and the Seamen's Union of Ireland. The Labour Court has issued its recommendations on the dispute. The Labour Court operates as an industrial relations tribunal, hearing both sides in trade disputes and then issuing recommendations setting out its opinion on the dispute and the terms on which it should be settled. I urge both parties to give serious consideration to the court's recommendations, as did the Taoiseach when he addressed the issue on Leaders' Questions yesterday.
Maintaining and increasing Irish seafarer employment has been a focus of the Government. We established the Irish Maritime Development Office to provide our shipping and shipping services sector with a dedicated statutory development office. The Irish Maritime Development Office operates like a mini-IDA Ireland and helps my Department to make a case to Government on the sector's behalf. I am requesting the Irish Maritime Development Office to carry out a thorough evaluation of the results of existing strategies to promote the Irish maritime sector, particularly in the light of recent developments. That evaluation will include an examination of the successes achieved to date in promoting the sector and the issues to be addressed.
Following evaluation by my Department, the recommendations of the Irish Maritime Development Office will form the basis of a submission to Government. In 2004 the Government set up a new €51 million National Maritime College to train our merchant marine and Irish Naval Service cadets. Students pursuing careers at sea or in the onshore maritime sector can obtain qualifications or degrees in Europe's most modern nautical college. Together with the National College of Ireland's International Maritime Studies Institute, which opened in 2004 and which is based in the Irish Financial Services Centre in Dublin, the new maritime college will help Ireland to develop as a choice for both sea and shore-based maritime activity.
In the opinion of the Irish Maritime Development Office, there is still strong demand for the employment of Irish officers and cadets, from Irish ship owners other than Irish Ferries and from international ship owners. Part of the examination to be carried out by the development office of the existing strategies to promote the Irish maritime sector will be an assessment of the possible impact of the Irish Ferries action on the operations of the National Maritime College and the role of the Irish Maritime Development Office itself.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House.
In that regard, the European Commission is taking an increased interest in boosting seafarer employment in the Community's shipping sector. The Commission recognises that professional mariners often progress from active sea service to shore-based jobs that require maritime experience. It is the experience of other European maritime states that the onshore maritime sector can be of major economic significance.
Clearly the Government's maritime policy extends beyond seafarer employment to include the development of an onshore maritime cluster of marine related businesses. Our maritime sector covers not just the activities of our ship operators, but supporting onshore activities in such areas as freight forwarding, ship broking, insurance and financial and legal services. The Irish Maritime Development Office has estimated that the shipping services sector in Ireland has more than 9,000 employees and had an annual turnover of over €1.4 billion in 2004.
I thank the Minister of State for his reply. The Taoiseach told the Dáil yesterday that the Government had declined a request from Irish Ferries, and its parent Irish Continental Group, to re-register ships with a Cyprus registration. Did the company make an application to re-register with any other countries, such as the Bahamas? On what grounds did the Government turn down the re-registration request for Cyprus?
The Minister of State will have today read that the Labour Party has produced, under my name, the Mercantile Marine (Avoidance of Flags of Convenience) Bill 2005. This seeks to implement into Irish law the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, requiring ships and companies to have a genuine connection with the country of the flag under which vessels are registered. The Labour Party believes that the Bill is eminently constitutional and possible. Has the Minister of State, in conjunction with the Taoiseach, considered the legislation and will it be supported and brought forward by the Government as soon as possible? We could bring it forward this evening if we so wished.
A Bill was approved a few weeks ago relating to State property in approximately an hour after being announced that morning. Will the Minister of State ensure that the Labour Party's Mercantile Marine (Avoidance of Flags of Convenience) Bill 2005 is immediately passed? This will send a clear message to Mr. Rothwell and Irish Ferries.
What steps, if any, is the Government planning to take at the level of the European Union regarding the disgraceful and appalling proposals for workers' pay and conditions at Irish Ferries? Between 1998 and 2004, the Government, represented by Deputies Woods and Jacob, with Senator O'Rourke, were responsible for the input into an EU ferries directive. The basic point of this was that the pay and conditions of one of the states between whom the ferry was operating would be the minimum pay and conditions of the workforce aboard. What is being done about this directive, which has been tossed around for six years? There is an allegation that the Government and two of the Deputies were opposed to the implementation of the EU ferries directive.
Has the Department been in contact with Irish Ferries or the Irish Continental Group regarding the significant tax relief that the company receives? Its tonnage tax has been reduced from over €3 million two years ago to only €300,000. Has the company been contacted on the issue of availing of an Irish base that facilitates low taxes, yet treating our workers in a disgraceful manner?
With regard to the so-called cost-cutting measures, is it true that the Labour Court's judgment is the only one that could have been delivered and is eminently fair? There is an agreement covering 2004 to 2007 that was made in a fair and transparent way and should be accepted.
One could resolve the difficulty immediately were the parties prepared to accept the court's recommendations of this week, which I do not have. Formally, it is not seven days but, by the same token, everyone knows what the recommendations are. The Taoiseach made it blatantly obvious that the Government does not condone a situation where individuals, irrespective of where they come from, are being paid less than the minimum wage. This is clear and unambiguous.
As to the question on the Bahamas, it is my recollection that the company was following the Normandy and trying to flag out to the Bahamas, which would give it the opportunity to have so-called yellow packs.
On advice, yes. We now have an application for reflagging in Cyprus. We put a number of questions to the company in connection with this on the advice of the Office of the Attorney General. We received replies that were not what we requested. I understand that more comprehensive replies have been made as recently as today. Obviously, I must get advice from the Attorney General before I can deal with the matter.
A number of State aids are in place. Irish Ferries and other companies can take advantage of these, whether it is the special and unique €6,350 income tax allowance available to seafarers who work in excess of 161 days at sea, a corporation profit tax incentive, PRSI or tonnage tax, which——
Like the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Noel Dempsey, and others, I do not wish to interfere in internal industrial relations or in the industrial relations machinery of the Labour Court which has served us well. I recently met representatives of the unions, such as Mr. David Begg of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, representatives from the Seamen's Union of Ireland and people from SIPTU. They made a number of suggestions about what I could do in respect of a tripartite arrangement with the United Kingdom and France. I pursued this and sought advice but I could not do anything in the short term.
In concert with the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Killeen, and his officials, we discussed the possibility of introducing legislation to ensure that, irrespective of which country's flag a vessel flies, it must conform with the minimum wage legislation in this country, the United Kingdom or France depending on where they were sailing to and from. There was no legislation we could introduce to do that.
I was in Europe at the time. The Deputy referred to the EU manning issue which was approved by the European Parliament but not by the Council. We had some reservations but, as I have often said, it is much easier to be an historian than a forecaster. Obviously, there were good grounds for the decision at the time but I hope we can pursue the manning directive as it is the best avenue. It is not on the agenda at the moment but I would have no difficulty in trying to promote it in Europe. It may not solve the problem immediately but is essential in the long term. None of us in this House condones——
I admire any individual Member who tables his or her own Bill. The Irish ship registration legislation is essentially the Mercantile Marine Act 1955. It is being reviewed and a public consultation process is under way. The details of the process are available on a website.
I remind the House and Deputy Broughan in particular that the closing date for submissions is 16 December. The content of the Labour Party Bill can be considered in the review process. If Deputy Broughan and his party meanwhile wish to bring the Bill before the House in Private Members' time, we would not oppose it on Second Stage.