Wednesday, 16 November 2005
Question 91: To ask the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources if his Department has received formal notice from the European Commission regarding the effects of drift netting on the conservation status of salmon; if such a letter is the first step in an infringement procedure against Ireland in respect of its failure to meet its obligations in respect of salmon, which enjoy a special status in certain designated special areas of conservation under the habitats directive; if he has responded to the Commission regarding same; and the nature of that response. [34548/05]
The Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has primary responsibility for the implementation in Ireland of Directive 92/43/EEC on the conservation of natural habitats and wild flora and fauna. That Department received a letter of formal notice from the European Commission dated 5 July 2005 regarding a complaint made to the Commission that Ireland is not managing drift net fishing for salmon in accordance with the directive. As the complaint concerns drift net fishing in Irish waters, the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources has worked closely with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government on drafting a reply to the European Commission's letter. This response has now been forwarded to the Commission. As the correspondence between the European Commission and the Irish authorities may be considered an initial step in possible infringement procedures against Ireland on this issue, I am advised that the matter remains sub judice and therefore I cannot comment on the exact details of our response at this time.
The Deputy will be aware that as Minister of State with responsibility for the marine, I rely on the advice of the National Salmon Commission, which is a statutory advisory body, in determining conservation and management measures for the wild Irish salmon fishery. The statutory terms of reference, which I have recently provided to the salmon commission, require, inter alia, that any practical recommendations made to me having regard to the conservation, management, protection and development of the national salmon resource must be considered in the context of national obligations under relevant legislation of the European Union. I am satisfied that these terms of reference will ensure that the advice provided to me by the National Salmon Commission for the 2006 salmon fishing season and beyond will take account of the requirements of Council Directive 92/43/EEC, otherwise known as the habitats directive, in so far as they apply to the wild salmon species.
I am slightly amazed that the Minister of State cannot tell me anything about the nature of the communication between his Department and the European Commission. During several referendum campaigns and during the Nice treaty referendum campaign in particular, I remember there was a commitment and an assurance that the European Union was opening up and that it was possible for national parliaments to be involved in some way in the process of interaction between the State and the Commission. The Minister of State has said he can tell me nothing about the nature of the correspondence and the nature of his response. This is a terrible indictment of the system, whether the problem stems from the Commission or from Ireland. It is not appropriate for this Parliament to be kept blind and ignorant of any such correspondence and developments. This goes against the principles of openness and transparency and good government both here and in the European Commission.
Who raised with the Commission the original concern regarding Ireland's possible breach of the habitats directive? Is the House to know nothing about these proceedings? Is the letter from the Commission the first step in a formal case being taken against Ireland regarding infringement of procedure or does this come later? If the Minister of State is unable to inform the House now, when at any stage will this Parliament have a role or possibility of discovering the circumstances of this issue? How do I, as an elected representative with an interest in this issue, find out information if I am unable to do so by asking questions in my national Parliament?
I will certainly not hide behind any directive but I am advised, because this is an initial step in possible infringement proceedings against us, that the matter remains sub judice and that I cannot therefore comment on the exact details of the response at this time. It may well be that the European Commission is prepared to give that information but, from my experience of it, I doubt that very much because it could prejudice any case that may be taken. In 2003, the EU Commission, that is, the Directorate General Environment which deals with the Habitats Directive, first notified the Irish authorities of complaints received from a UK source which contend that Ireland's approval level of drift-net fishing for Atlantic salmon represented excessive exploitation which was affecting the number of salmon returning to the rivers.
The Commission has received a complaint but it will not take a decision until it has all of the information. The Commission asked the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to respond. We have worked closely on this. One of the officials in the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources was in Brussels recently and that official, in conjunction with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government's section dealing with the Habitats Directive, responded. In both our response and in our discussions with the Commission to date, we clearly outlined the management regime in place and how our policies and strategies are in keeping with our obligations under all of the relevant EU legislation. I will not waste the time of the House because Deputy Ryan knows well the steps that have been taken and it is not necessary to elaborate on this. If there is any further information I can give the Deputy or the House without affecting the sub judice aspect of this, I will be glad to provide it.
Can the Minister of State confirm that it was the UK Government that made the original complaint in 2003? Given that the complaint is two years old, if the Commission decides that there is a case to answer, whatever about the Minister of State's reassurance in that regard, and that it may be decided to be in breach of the Habitats Directive, how quickly could the Commission enforce an end to the current practice? Could this put an end to the current practice before next season is out or what is the typical time frame before a decision is implemented? Given that we have already responded with information from our side, could the Commission make an immediate decision and direct Ireland to change its practices accordingly?
On the infringement case, I am somewhat disappointed. I agree with Deputy Ryan. In light of the possible infringement of the Habitats Directive, why is this information not in the public domain? In light of the fact that the Minister of State ignored scientific recommendations on the number of salmon that could be caught and the number of licensees, is he adding to the infringement possibilities? Can he indicate how many salmon were caught in commercial nets this year?
Having read the instrument on the National Salmon Commission, is it the case that the new report contains a compensatory mechanism? Did I read it correctly? Could there be a compensatory mechanism, possibly mentioned here on budget day or whenever?
If it is available. I will have to clear that with the Commission. I am sure Deputy Ryan, above all, would not want me to do anything which might prejudice the outcome.
We responded to that complaint in November 2003. We provided the detailed information on the management regime and no response was received from the Commission until July last. They have requested further information and now we have responded to that as expeditiously as possible.
In answer to Deputy Perry, this year I accepted the advice of the National Salmon Commission, as did all my predecessors since the establishment of that commission. I do not have the information on the number of fish. It is important to note that 94% of those catching salmon by way of drift, draft, snap or loop are compliant.
I do not know if these are Deputy Perry's views. Deputy McGinley referred to Deputy Perry, but I know Deputy Perry does not represent the views of my constituency colleague, Deputy McGinley when he suggests that we should lower the tack.
On a point of order, I protest most vehemently. I had the third question of the ordinary questions for oral answer today and I have been sitting here since a 3.15 p.m. waiting for my turn. It is disgraceful that we only got as far as the second oral question. I make this protest in the strongest possible terms because it also happened a fortnight ago that I had a question tabled under similar circumstances — second or third on ordinary questions — and I did not get a reply. It is an infringement of the order of the House that the third question is not taken.
I had an important matter about my constituency to discuss, the critical economic situation and unemployment in an important town which the Minister of State knows well, Killybegs, and south-west Donegal. People wanted me to raise this and I waited and waited. I was confident that I would get to it today because the question was such a high priority on the Order Paper. I am very disappointed that the question has not been taken.
Something must be done. It is disgraceful that the third ordinary question cannot be taken. I do not know what redress I have. I must now wait another month before I can raise this in the Dáil.
I agree with the Deputy. For example, priority questions are supposed to be finished within 30 minutes. In spite of the Chair's best efforts, they took 54 minutes today. It is Members who are preventing other Members from having their questions taken. The Chair appealed numerous times today for Members to abide by the Standing Orders that have been set down by the Members and the appeal was totally ignored, time after time. It is unfair to Deputies like Deputy McGinley, who has been sitting here to have his question attended to, but it is due to the action of other Members who exceed their time and ignore the Chair. I hope, arising from what Deputy McGinley has said, some action will be taken to get Members to abide by the rules to which they have agreed. We cannot have a lengthy discussion on the matter. All I am saying is that Deputy McGinley's complaint is justified.
I appreciate your concern and understanding. I have been long enough in this House to remember that 20 ordinary oral questions used be taken on a regular basis and now we are not able to take even three. It is disgraceful. I hope it will be reformed. I hope it will never happen again. I hope it never happens to me anyway. I am sure I speak on behalf of many ordinary Members of this House who have been treated in a similar way.