Tuesday, 6 December 2005
Regional Fisheries Boards (Postponement of Elections) Order 2005: Motion.
That Dáil Éireann approves the following order in draft:
Regional Fisheries Boards (Postponement of Elections) Order 2005,
copies of which were laid before Dáil Éireann on 22 November 2005.
I welcome the opportunity to discuss the motion and, more generally, the Government's proposals for the restructuring of the inland fisheries sector. I gave an assurance at a meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources last week, following a request by Fine Gael, the Labour Party and the Green Party, and the Taoiseach also gave this assurance on the Order of Business, that the new structure of the boards issue will be debated during the next session.
The management and development of the inland fisheries sector resides with the Central Fisheries Board and the seven regional fisheries boards. Elections to the regional boards are due to take place on 20 December 2005. However, I propose, subject to the approval of the Dáil and the Seanad, to make an order postponing elections for one year. If this is not done, the boards will fall.
In 2003, a consortium of expert consultants led by FGS Consulting was appointed to undertake a significant review of the inland fisheries sector. While a number of reviews and reports on the sector had been completed in the past, many of these focused on selected aspects or particular dimensions of the sector. It was, therefore, decided, in light of a number of new opportunities for adopting a new approach to the sector, including the implementation of the EU water framework, to undertake a review which would be holistic in nature and which would involve a root and branch examination of the sector.
The Department was firmly of the view that to secure the future of the very valuable and unique inland fisheries resource, it was critical to identify and address in a comprehensive manner the issues that have detracted from the optimum operation and development of the sector and threatened the long-term sustainability of the resource. During the consultation undertaken as part of the review process, the consultants found that there was a unanimous view among various interests that the current sectoral model was in need of a fundamental change.
On 15 November 2005, the FGS report on the review of inland fisheries was published and details were announced of Government policy adopted on the restructuring of the sector. There are differences between the report's recommendations and Government policy. The Government has decided that a fundamental restructuring of the sector will take place on an incremental basis, in two phases, between 2006 and 2008. This restructuring process is based on four key principles as follows: subject to appropriate regulation, local users and beneficiaries will be empowered to take responsibility for the management, promotion and development of the fisheries; the role of the Department will focus primarily on the protection and conservation of the inland fisheries resource; subject to appropriate regulation, regional management structures, representative of all users-beneficiaries stakeholders, will be created to manage access, development and maintenance of fisheries; and the establishment of a regulatory regime to oversee appropriate mechanisms governing the transfer and use of and access to fisheries, the licensing, including distribution of rights of fishery activities, in the commercial and recreational areas and the determination of fishing effort and total allowable catches etc. in regard to fish stocks.
The restructuring of the fisheries boards will involve the establishment of a single strengthened national inland fisheries authority, the establishment of strong regional advisory boards and the transfer to the Marine Institute of the current resources and responsibilities of the inland fisheries sector relating to research. The second phase of development will involve a move to a model to give effect to the principles underpinning the reform, whereby local users and beneficiaries of the inland fisheries sector will be empowered to take responsibility for the effective management of fisheries and the fisheries resource, subject to appropriate regulation. Phase 2 will be the subject of an extensive, open and inclusive consultation process designed to achieve optimum buy-in from all stakeholders.
A question was raised about licence increases. It was generally accepted by all parties that a fee increase of 2.1% should be sanctioned this year. That is reasonable as it is in line with the consumer price index. We can also avoid the big bang, which occurred a number of years ago. The increase was accepted by the joint committee without a division.
The motion is before the House as a result of the inland fisheries review, which is seriously misguided and needs to be rejected in full. The review proposes to centralise power and sell the State fisheries. The changes put forward in the review will not save money and will not make the system more effective. They will, instead, remove executive power from regional boards and will base power in one central unit, which runs totally contrary to decentralisation. The Minister of State also proposes to sell valuable fishery resources. This is a ridiculous suggestion and the review does not expand on how this would be done. It is unworkable and it is not in the best interest of the State.
Problems exist in the current inland fisheries model but the staff involved are doing an excellent job considering the lack of funding provided by the State. While the allocation increased this year, stacked up costs and the lack of funding to invest in restocking has negated its impact. The boards operate a highly efficient and effective service with a small budget compared to that of other State organisations.
While the Minister of State has said restructuring is required, he has not detailed why or in what areas, which is remiss of him. More uniformity is badly needed in the system. The regional boards have followed Government guidelines but the Minister of State and the Government have not given direction in many areas. The review also recommends that ownership of the fisheries be transferred from the State to local interests but no detail is given in this regard or direction offered as to how these management structures will be formed and how they will operate.
Angling tourism contributes significant revenue to the Exchequer. Our fisheries should never be ceded from State control. This notion is unworkable and it is not in the best interest of the State economically, nor is it in the interest of the long-term protection of fish stocks. Many other recommendations are grossly unsound. Under the proposed policy, the scientific unit of the Central Fisheries Board will be transferred to the Marine Institute. Given that the unit is widely acknowledged as a major success, why is the Minister of State moving it?
The review also creates enormous uncertainty for staff of the fisheries boards over the next three years. What will happen to the seven regional directors? The review does not specify whether there will be staff reductions or redundancies or what will happen to staff in autonomous positions.
The second phase of the policy will involve consultation and will take place from 2006 to 2008. It took two years to publish the Farrell Grant Sparks report and it has been on the Minister's desk since last February. It is now December, so why did it take so many months to publish it? During the duration of the second phase staff of fisheries boards will be left in limbo for at least another two years while the Minister consults on their future. That is not good enough.
It is ridiculous that it took so long to publicise this policy. The review was commissioned two years ago and has been finished since February. What was the hold-up in publishing it? The policy pulls power back into the middle. Responsibility will be taken out of the hands of the current governing regional boards and they will become regional advisory boards. Their power will be totally diminished and they will just be talking shops. That is a retrograde step. It means that those working on the ground in a given area will have to go to the central unit to make a decision. The nature of a board's work is such that decision-making needs to be carried out at local level, but that will not be the case. The proposals are illogical. They run contrary to decentralisation and do not bode well for our fisheries. They will have a significant impact in the north west and throughout the country.
The implementation of this policy needs to be blocked as it needs further discussion. I am disappointed at the limited consultation with the fisheries boards prior to publication of the report. There was obviously consultation with Farrell Grant Sparks on the report, but many of those involved in the fisheries boards did not know what was coming. It is a pity, when we have an autonomous effective system working in regional boards, that there was not more consultation and investment by the State. The fact that the policy is being deferred for another two years will mean there will be inaction. The Minister of State now says it will be two years before we will have an overall policy. He says he is bringing about uniformity by bringing in one central director, but that takes power from people who have delivered effectively.
I am disappointed there was not more consultation on this. The deferment of elections is only a stop-gap measure to keep people on board. The real power is being taken and there is no commitment to people who are working effectively. The rug is being pulled from under their feet.
It is regrettable that the Farrell Grant Sparks review of the inland fisheries sector and the issue of the postponement of the elections to the fisheries boards were not brought before the Dáil last spring when the report was available so that Members would have a full opportunity to give proper and careful consideration to measures proposed to bring about a massive transformation of how our inland fisheries are managed.
A significant number of our people — perhaps a minimum of 100,000 — take part in angling, a sport that is supported by young and old. There are grave concerns, particularly with regard to the regulator and the perceived possible sell-off of our valuable inland fisheries resources. It will be much more difficult for local communities to manage inland waterways.
I welcome this belated debate and thank the Minister of State for his part in bringing it about, but the 25 minutes allowed for it do not permit adequate discussion of this important aspect of our national life. Anglers and other stakeholders wonder whether the abolition of the central and regional fisheries boards and the subsuming of their executive functions into the national inland fisheries authority, the proposed new authority to be based in Carrick-on-Shannon, flies in the face of the Government's decentralisation policy. We saw last week that this policy is in grave difficulties with few people wanting to move from Dublin.
Attention has been drawn to the fact that the existing organisation of the central and regional boards will be replaced by regional advisory committees once the consultation period is over. There is grave concern as to what extent valuable local knowledge which has been built up over decades and generations about water catchment areas, water quality and, most importantly, fishery stocks will impact on the new centralised agency.
There is a feeling among the inland fisheries community that there has not been sufficient consultation. The Minister of State said he would have this year for that, but it would have been a better approach to launch the report in the House when it was published, have a full debate and then put it to the boards during the past six months for consideration.
It is bizarre that at the same time as we have the dismantling of the marine section of the Department, with different functions of the Department being split into two or possibly three sections, the Minister of State talks about a new joined-up strategy for inland fisheries. I agree with that, but the Department does not seem to be pursuing it in a coherent manner. Members and stakeholders would like to see the legislation for the national inland fisheries authority as early as possible.
The Minister of State announced last week the establishment of the regulatory regime to oversee mechanisms governing the transfer, use of and access to fishery licensing in the commercial and recreational areas and the determination of fisheries effort and total allowable catches etc. The gravest concern arising from this is the possibility that a situation may evolve whereby valuable resources will be hived off and privatised.
Like my colleagues, I am concerned about the abolition of the research role of the Central Fisheries Board and its absorption into the Marine Institute. The Marine Institute has done incredibly valuable work, but so too has the Central Fisheries Board. When I first became spokesperson for my party on this issue, the board's Indecon report was invaluable to me and informed all I thought and said on the matter.
The detailed Farrell Grant Sparks report raises some important issues, particularly regarding fishing effort and stocks. However, people's concerns about the maintenance and preservation of our inland fisheries far outweigh these. The report refers to the integration of the conservation and preservation of inland fisheries species and their habitats into the wider ecological and environmental heritage. It focuses on the water quality agenda for the country as a whole. These are valuable ambitions and policy objectives. However, in a year when we have seen a dramatic fall-off in numbers of visiting anglers and when we have had ongoing debate within the angling community across Europe on salmon conservation, the report seems to be a diktat in that it recommends the implementation of a dictatorial policy for inland fisheries.
I will share my time with Deputies Eamon Ryan and Ó Caoláin.
This is a serious issue. This policy throws out the baby with the bath water. It will result in our fisheries being totally unprotected. When fisheries are handed back to the stakeholders, they will not be able to afford to keep the staff to continue the good job they do — we can see the good job the staff does in the Moy fisheries in Ballina, for example.
When the fisheries boards confined their activities during the foot and mouth disease crisis, there was a total take-over by illegal anglers. That situation will recur when the people doing such a good job are removed. The Government should reconsider the situation carefully. Similar centralisation happened with the health boards and democracy was taken out of the equation. How will the IFA and other people currently on the boards be represented? We will end up in the same position as with the HSE where democracy has been thrown out the door.
The good work that has been done, such as deprivatisation of fisheries and their return to the State, will be eroded and other resources will no longer be available. This report is no panacea for lack of resources. There are hardly sufficient resources to do the job currently, but taking the path the report recommends means the stakeholders will not be able to cope. The resources will not be there and the staff will not be available. There will be chaos, just like during the foot and mouth disease outbreak when fisheries officers could not do their job and poachers took over.
I will try to be brief, given the 100 seconds I have to speak. I would welcome a longer debate so we could discuss the merits and demerits of the range of proposals that are being considered. I am not a supporter of keeping the system as it is currently. While local knowledge has worked well, other aspects of it have not been so successful. I refer to cronyism and poor management of the current structures. We need to change.
In his presentation, the Minister of State emphasised several times that he is not centralising anything which makes me think he is centralising something because he would not be denying it so strongly if he were not. Clearly, there is a certain amount of centralisation of powers about which my party is concerned. We believe in decentralisation in a real sense rather than the Government allocation of Departments around the country. We are concerned in that regard about the nature of the centralisation that may result from the proposed changes. However, I welcome certain changes such as the lack of duplication in the marine research area. It may be appropriate to have certain areas of strength. There are only so many people in the country with real scientific expertise in this area and perhaps it makes sense to pool those resources. That is a debate for another day.
Ensuring that we keep in office the same elected people is a poor start to the process. On that basis I am opposed to the motion. I look forward to a debate on the wider issue.
I thank the Minister of State for pressing for this debate, albeit a short one. In this brief opportunity, I record Sinn Féin's opposition to the intended changes in the administration and control mechanisms over our inland fisheries arising from the Farrell Grant Sparks report. This postponement of elections order is a facilitation measure and is, accordingly, also being opposed.
The Minister of State must note the concerns expressed by many people who enjoy access to the great resource that is our inland fisheries. He stated that local users and beneficiaries will be empowered to take responsibility for the management, promotion and development of our lakes and rivers. Will the Minister of State explain why the reference is to local users only and will he give a definition of "local"? To what beneficiaries does he refer? How would he define the term "beneficiary" in regard to inland waterways as distinct from users of same? I have many questions and so far the answers are very few.
In the absence of detail, concerns and fears will fill the vacuum. That said, there is enough to give rise to concern about the future control of our inland waterways. Is this the thin end of the wedge of private control over a public natural and national resource? Such questions must be addressed. I look forward to a greater opportunity for debate, in line with the commitment given by the Taoiseach.
I will not have an opportunity to respond to all the questions that have been raised. I repeat the commitment which I gave in committee and affirmed by the Taoiseach today that we will have a full debate in the House in the next session in which I will have an opportunity to go into more detail on the questions asked.
The purpose of the motion is the postponement of the elections to the regional fisheries boards for a further 12 months. Given the imminence of significant changes to the sector, it is reasonable that I should request the Houses' approval to postpone the elections for 12 months. I do so in line with section 15 of the Fisheries Act 1980 to ensure continuity and a seamless changeover. I hope the legislation to provide for the new authority will be in place by the middle of next year. The regional advisory boards will still continue to play an important part in the development of inland fisheries.
In my initial contribution I referred to the fact that I did not accept all the proposals made by Farrell Grant Sparks. Two very important points came from the regional boards. The boards will still have responsibility for water quality. I will ask them to work closely in this matter with the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Environmental Protection Agency. It was also suggested in the report that we would remove responsibility for tourism angling. Neither I nor the Government accepted this proposal and the boards will still have responsibility for this area. I will ask them to work closely with the Department of Arts, Sport and Tourism and Fáilte Ireland. We must take full advantage of the structures in place in that Department and in Fáilte Ireland. They will have to work very closely together. I will monitor developments there together with my colleague, the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Deputy O'Donoghue.
I received the report in February of last year. It is a long and detailed report and, given my other responsibilities, it took me some time to read it. The next step was to get the views of other Ministers, especially those who will deal with some aspects of it, namely, the Ministers for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Arts, Sport and Tourism and Finance. That took some time. Following the summer recess and on receipt of the observations of the other Departments I asked the Government to approve the recommendations I made, which it did. Shortly after that I launched the report following it being printed.
There are two phases to this process. Phase 2 will result in further unhurried consultation that will be completely transparent. All those with concerns will have an opportunity to make known their views. I wish to allay fears in so far as staff are concerned. I did that when I met the chief executives and chairpersons of each of the boards. This phase will have no implications for staff. I accept, as Deputy Perry pointed out, that there is uncertainty. I want to ensure this uncertainty will be removed. However, it may be decided to make some changes. For instance, the boards may in future be based on water districts and this may require changes, but there will be ample opportunity to discuss any such change.
I believe it is sensible to locate research in the Marine Institute. It provides expert scientific advice to us and the regional and central fisheries boards on salmon fisheries. We are about to commission a world class facility for the marine research institute in Galway. Through both institutes working together we can enhance the limited research capacity of the Central Fisheries Board. I look forward to a full debate some time next year when we will have greater opportunities to flesh out what is in the report.
The Dail Divided:
For the motion: 69 (Bertie Ahern, Dermot Ahern, Michael Ahern, Noel Ahern, Barry Andrews, Seán Ardagh, Niall Blaney, Johnny Brady, Martin Brady, Séamus Brennan, John Browne, Joe Callanan, John Carty, Donie Cassidy, Michael J Collins, Mary Coughlan, Brian Cowen, John Cregan, Martin Cullen, John Curran, Noel Davern, Síle de Valera, Noel Dempsey, John Dennehy, Jimmy Devins, John Ellis, Michael Finneran, Dermot Fitzpatrick, Seán Fleming, Mildred Fox, Pat Gallagher, Jim Glennon, Noel Grealish, Seán Haughey, Máire Hoctor, Cecilia Keaveney, Peter Kelly, Tony Killeen, Séamus Kirk, Tom Kitt, Brian Lenihan Jnr, Conor Lenihan, Michael McDowell, Tom McEllistrim, John McGuinness, Micheál Martin, John Moloney, Michael Mulcahy, M J Nolan, Seán Ó Fearghaíl, Charlie O'Connor, Willie O'Dea, Liz O'Donnell, John O'Donoghue, Denis O'Donovan, Noel O'Flynn, Fiona O'Malley, Tim O'Malley, Tom Parlon, Peter Power, Dick Roche, Mae Sexton, Brendan Smith, Dan Wallace, Mary Wallace, Joe Walsh, Ollie Wilkinson, Michael Woods, G V Wright)
Against the motion: 55 (Bernard Allen, Dan Boyle, James Breen, Tommy Broughan, Joan Burton, Paul Connaughton, Paudge Connolly, Joe Costello, Seymour Crawford, Seán Crowe, Bernard Durkan, Olwyn Enright, Eamon Gilmore, John Gormley, Séamus Healy, Joe Higgins, Michael D Higgins, Phil Hogan, Brendan Howlin, Enda Kenny, Kathleen Lynch, Pádraic McCormack, Shane McEntee, Dinny McGinley, Finian McGrath, Paul McGrath, Liz McManus, Olivia Mitchell, Arthur Morgan, Breeda Moynihan-Cronin, Catherine Murphy, Gerard Murphy, Denis Naughten, Dan Neville, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, Aengus Ó Snodaigh, Fergus O'Dowd, Jim O'Keeffe, Brian O'Shea, Jan O'Sullivan, Séamus Pattison, Willie Penrose, John Perry, Ruairi Quinn, Pat Rabbitte, Michael Ring, Eamon Ryan, Seán Ryan, Joe Sherlock, Emmet Stagg, David Stanton, Billy Timmins, Liam Twomey, Mary Upton, Jack Wall)
Tellers: Tá, Deputies Kitt and Curran; Níl, Deputies Neville and Stagg.
Question declared carried.