Tuesday, 11 May 2010
Ceisteanna - Questions.
Tribunals of Inquiry
Question 1: To ask the Taoiseach the costs which accrued to his Department in February 2010 in respect of the Moriarty tribunal; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12954/10]
Question 2: To ask the Taoiseach the projected additional costs that will accrue to his Department arising from the decision of the Moriarty tribunal to hold additional public sittings; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12955/10]
Question 3: To ask the Taoiseach the costs accruing to his Department arising from the Moriarty tribunal up to the latest date for which figures are available; if any estimate is available of the likely final cost to his Department; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [13687/10]
Question 5: To ask the Taoiseach the estimated cost to his Department of the additional public sittings of the Moriarty tribunal and the projected final cost of the tribunal to his Department; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [18791/10]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 5, inclusive, together.
Total expenditure by my Department from the establishment of the Moriarty tribunal to the end of April 2010 was €39.36 million. Expenditure in January, February and March of this year was €414,962, €259,321 and €200,302, respectively. The sole member of the tribunal, Mr. Justice Moriarty, has not yet addressed third party costs. Until this is done, we cannot estimate the overall cost of the tribunal with any accuracy. The tribunal secretariat has on many occasions over the years told my Department that any attempt by the tribunal to quantify third party costs would lead to conclusions being drawn and suppositions being made, which could infringe on the rights of witnesses and impinge on the independence of the tribunal. As Deputies will be aware, the Comptroller and Auditor General's special report on tribunals of inquiry, in attempting to establish some estimate of the overall cost of the Moriarty tribunal, gave various ranges for third party costs but stressed that the figures were subject to many caveats and contingencies. It is not possible at this point to estimate with any accuracy the likely cost to my Department of any additional public sittings.
This tribunal has been going on for many years. According to the figures produced by the Taoiseach, it has cost almost €40 million. As he said, we are not yet in a position to know what the third party costs might be. Some of the legal people employed by the tribunal have cost in excess of €1,000 a day. Given the significant increase in costs because witnesses have had to be called as a result of two errors that were made arising from the work of the tribunal, does the Taoiseach believe that the sole chairman of the tribunal is now in a position to produce a credible and impartial report? What area of Exchequer funds will have to be diverted to pay for the additional costs that will arise from these mistakes? Given that no report has been produced so far, does the Taoiseach consider that the €40 million spent to date - we do not know the figure for third party costs - represents good value for money?
An earlier report, on another aspect of the tribunal's work, was produced in December 2006. That was the first report of the tribunal. We are awaiting its second and final report. The tribunal has lasted much longer than was expected at the time of its establishment. In addition to the length and complexity of the tribunal's terms of reference, factors which have contributed to its duration include litigation against the tribunal instituted by individuals connected with its work, the illness of certain witnesses and material that came to light in the course of the Ansbacher investigation which had to be considered by the tribunal. This necessitated almost a year's work by way of private investigation.
The tribunal has been in existence for over 12 years. There must be a focus on its completing its work as soon as possible. It is obvious that the recent attendance of additional witnesses from the Office of the Attorney General and the possible attendance of Mr. Michael Andersen, whose firm was a consultant in the GSM evaluation process, will further delay the completion of the report. We are waiting for all such witnesses to come before the tribunal to be cross-examined and to deal with any issues that arise in respect of which they can be helpful.
This tribunal, like other tribunals, is a creation of the Oireachtas and carries out its functions independently. It emphasises and adopts a certain methodology for the carrying out of its work. I do not believe I should make any comment in that regard, other than to mention that I have been inquiring about when the report may be completed. The correspondence has indicated it is not possible to state exactly when that will happen. There is correspondence with Mr. Andersen's solicitor with a view to clarifying matters. While the chairman is not in a position yet to be categoric about the impact of this development on the completion of his work, he wishes to make it clear that he is determined that the delay will be as of a short duration and consistent with the discharge of his remit and the safeguarding of the constitutional rights of those persons affected by the inquiries. He does not anticipate that any such delay will protract his work beyond a short number of months, which is his best estimate.
Some of the young students in the Visitors Gallery were only small children when this tribunal began. It is clear from the figures the Taoiseach has given today and in the past that members of the tribunal and its legal team are exceptionally well rewarded for the work in which they have been engaged, yet two serious errors occurred, both of which were admitted by the tribunal chairman and both of which should not have happened.
Fees are €1,500, €1,600 and €1,900 a day. The tribunal has gone on for more than 12 years, two serious mistakes have occurred and the expert consultant, Michael Andersen, has agreed to go back and give evidence. We are aware from reports what will be his evidence. This requires further public sittings and may require further legal objection. Has the Taoiseach been informed of the proposed number of sittings or the length of time for which the tribunal may have to sit again? One report suggests it will sit until 2012. Has he considered that legal people paid at these extraordinary rates presided over a situation where two serious and grievous errors occurred? Has he been informed of the likelihood of a number of further public sittings? Is there any truth in the rumour that this will go on to 2012 or possibly beyond?
I cannot deal with rumours and the Deputy should not deal with them. I have just explained that the latest information I have from the sole member of the tribunal is that while he cannot be categoric about the impact of recent developments on the completion of his work, for example, the availability of Mr. Andersen, he is in correspondence with Mr. Andersen's solicitor to clarify that matter, and he wishes to make it clear that he is determined that the delay will be as of a short duration and consistent with the discharge of his remit and the safeguarding of the constitutional rights of those persons affected by the inquiries. He further informs me that he does not anticipate that any such delay will protract his work beyond a short number of months. Recent Supreme Court judgments will have to be taken into account by this and other tribunals in respect of third party cost implications.
The correspondence is from the Sole Member, who is the person dealing with the tribunal proceedings. It is not a case of "what is another year?" He stated, "he does not anticipate that any such delay will protract his work beyond a short number of months". It should be acknowledged that is the latest information I have from the sole member.
The Deputy is treading a thin line on this matter. He knows the difficulties we have with this House and tribunals sitting simultaneously. I understand the difficulty Members have asking supplementary questions.
The questions are about the costs of the tribunal, for which the Taoiseach's Department is responsible. It was set up by the Oireachtas and is paid for by the Ceann Comhairle and every other taxpayer.
Serious fees are being paid to legal personnel. My understanding is that the Attorney General advised the tribunal of the legality of the change of ownership in respect of the consortium bidding for the licence. It has come to light only recently that this was a fact. How could legal personnel paid at premium rates on a daily basis make a fundamental error such as that, and the legal adviser to the State and to the Government advise on the legality of the change of ownership yet that did not emerge until quite recently?
The tribunal was set up by the Government and this House. It was a decision of the Dáil. Does the Taoiseach have a view on when the Dáil should consider that the tribunal should be wound up? It has now drifted for 12 years and has cost €40 million to date plus unknown figures for third party costs. Now, the expert consultant, Mr. Andersen, wants to give evidence to the tribunal in accordance with what has been already said by the legal adviser and the Department. Does the Taoiseach, on behalf of the Government, have a view on when the Moriarty tribunal should be wound up? If it is allowed to drift interminably people will call it a charade, and a costly one at that.
I respect the right of the sole member of the tribunal to find and determine the facts but two grievous errors have occurred along the way and they will cost the taxpayer more money. Does the Taoiseach have a view on when the Government will consider a recommendation for the winding up of the Moriarty tribunal or is he prepared to let it drift for a number of months or possibly even longer?
As I said to the Deputy on a number of occasions, it is a matter for the Oireachtas to table a substantive motion for consideration on tribunals of inquiry. The matter will require careful consideration. At this stage the focus must be on the completion of the report and to arrange for its publication. A witness has indicated that they may be available to attend. Correspondence is ongoing between the tribunal and the solicitor for the individual concerned, who is in another country, to see whether that can be facilitated. The latest information I have from the sole member, without being categoric - because as Deputy Kenny indicated, he cannot anticipate what will be the impact of all of that - is that he suggested a short number of months is required. The working of the tribunal is a matter for the tribunal. It is not a matter for me to comment on.
The Taoiseach reminded us that the tribunal was established by the Oireachtas and that therefore how it is addressed is a matter for the Oireachtas. The Taoiseach will recall that when the tribunal was established in September 1997 its terms of reference included a paragraph which stated that it is the desire of the House that the inquiry be completed in as economical a manner as possible and at the earliest date consistent with a fair examination of the matters referred to it. It is probably fair to say that nobody anticipated in 1997 that 13 years later the tribunal would be still going on, that there would be no final report and no clear indication as to when a final report might be presented.
The Taoiseach referred to the possibility that the House might wish to consider a substantive motion on the issue. Would he consider it a good idea for there to be an agreed motion in the House directing the Clerk of the Dáil to write to the sole member to request from him a progress report on the tribunal and a clear indication as to when a final report might be presented to the House?
I wish to ask about the appearance of Mr. Andersen at the tribunal. Last week The Irish Times carried a report, which was apparently based on a reply prepared by the Taoiseach for delivery in the Dáil if the question had been reached here. It stated that the Taoiseach had written to the sole member to inquire about a timescale for the completion of the tribunal's report. In his reply the sole member had stated that Mr. Andersen had not yet signalled to the tribunal that he was agreeable to attend as a witness, and that it was trying to ascertain the position.
That reply and the reportage of it prompted the solicitors for Mr. Andersen to state that, in fact, he had replied to the tribunal indicating that he was prepared to attend as a witness and that there was not any doubt about his attendance. Will the Taoiseach please clarify the position? I presume that the report of what the Taoiseach had intended to say was based on the correspondence from the sole member. How did it arise that the Taoiseach believed last week there was some doubt about Mr. Andersen's availability to attend as a witness when his solicitors state that, in fact, he had agreed to attend?
The reply that was given last week on this matter was in line with the correspondence I had received on 23 April from the sole member of the tribunal, when he stated in a letter to me of that date:
The Tribunal has always considered that Mr. Andersen would be a valuable witness. It is a matter of enormous regret to me that the prospect of his attendance should have arisen so belatedly in the Tribunal's proceedings. Although he has not yet signified to the Tribunal that he is agreeable to attending as a witness, the Tribunal is endeavouring to ascertain the position through correspondence with his solicitors.
This is the position as it was conveyed to me. I have also received correspondence, dated 10 May from the sole member of the tribunal, referring to his letter of 23 April in response to my letter, the previous day, in which the sole member indicated to me that because of the uncertainty surrounding the prospective attendance of Mr. Michael Andersen as a witness to the tribunal it was not possible for him to be definite about the impact which that development could have on the timescale for completion of his work. The sole member goes on to say in this letter, dated 10 May:
In the course of that letter, I informed you that Mr. Anderson had not yet signified to the Tribunal that he was, in fact, agreeable to attending as a witness, and that I was endeavouring to ascertain the position through correspondence with his solicitor.
In the light of an article published in today's editions of The Irish Times, which suggest that the information which I furnished to you in that regard was incorrect, I wish to state that the information which I provided to you on that occasion was not incorrect in any respect.
The sole member goes on to say:
You will appreciate that it would otherwise be wholly inappropriate for me to comment on the content on any media report, or on the content of confidential correspondence between my solicitor and that of any prospective witness.
He goes on to say:
I wish to confirm that the solicitor of the sole member is continuing in correspondence with Mr. Andersen's Danish solicitor, with a view to clarifying matters.
While not in a position to be categoric about the impact of this development on the conclusion of his work, he goes on to state that he wished to make it clear that the is determined the delay would be of as short a duration as possible, consistent with the discharge of his remit and the safeguarding of the constitutional rights of those persons affected by his inquiries. That having been said, the sole member goes on to say:
I do not anticipate that any such delay will protract my work beyond a short number of months.
That is the position of the sole member.
The idea that the tribunal was to be completed in a short number of months has arisen before. When the Taoiseach was answering questions in the House about the tribunal in October 2008, he said he expected the final report to be completed by the end of that year. On 4 November last, again when answering questions, the Taoiseach told us it was the intention of the sole member that the report would be ready for publication in early January, a reply that was subsequently described by a source with knowledge of the tribunal's affairs as being totally unrealistic. I have no doubt the Taoiseach gave those replies based on what he had been informed by the tribunal, but we have been told numerous times that the end is nigh for the tribunal report, and this has turned out not to be the case. Now we have the same response with regard to the appearance of Mr. Anderson.
I note there is an exchange of correspondence between the sole member and the Taoiseach, and I have no difficulty with that. However, given that the tribunal is a creature of the Oireachtas rather than of the Government, does the Taoiseach not think the correspondence, from which he has quoted extensively, should be communicated to the House? Does he intend to make it available or lay it before the House?
I will return to my first question, which is based on the shared concern at the length of time the tribunal has taken. We know the costs that have been incurred by the tribunal itself, but we have no idea, other than the estimates of the Comptroller and Auditor General, of what the third party costs might be. Given the original mandate of the tribunal, which was to conduct the inquiry and produce a report as quickly and economically as possible, and the fact that 13 years have now passed, how would the Taoiseach feel about the idea of an agreed motion in the House directing the Clerk of the Dáil to communicate with the sole member, asking him to return a progress report? The House established this tribunal and we have a responsibility, as the Taoiseach has said, to know where it is going. Perhaps the time has come for the House, rather than the Taoiseach, to communicate with the sole member and ask for a progress report and an indication of when the tribunal will come to an end and when we will see a final report.
Although I quoted extensively from the letter, it is marked "Private and confidential" and "Strictly addressee only". The reason I conduct this correspondence is to communicate queries raised by the House. All of my replies simply reflect the contents of the correspondence.
It is a matter for the sole member to inform me of certain issues; I am not involved in the workings of the tribunal, nor in the completion of its report.
The Deputy asked about the possibility of a progress report. However, such a report would state that the sole member is in the process of completing the final report, which is the case. A couple of developments have arisen, as the Deputy knows; there is the question of a particular witness being available to give evidence which he states would be valuable to the tribunal and which opportunity he would like to have had before now. It is a matter of regret to him that the prospect of attendance has arisen so belatedly in the proceedings. In the interest of protecting the constitutional rights of everyone concerned, if the person is available to give evidence, that evidence should be given. Obviously the sole member would not feel it proper or appropriate to proceed with the finalisation of a report in the absence of that evidence on the basis that the witness is indicating his availability to attend.
It is in the interest of bringing forward a report that will reflect the full participation of everyone concerned that he has indicated - without being categoric - that it will take a few more months to complete the report. We are awaiting a completed report. As the Deputy said, it was hoped we would have it before now, but a number of developments since the previous indications have meant further witness hearings and now we have the current development also. The progress report would simply state what I am stating, which is the case in the body of the correspondence I have received. That is the situation.
We are all concerned with the longevity of proceedings, not only in respect of this tribunal but of others and have brought forward legislation which provides us with a more modern means or more up-to-date way of dealing with matters such as these commissions of investigation or the Tribunals of Inquiry Bill which is currently before the Oireachtas. That is the substantive position. It is a matter for the Oireachtas at any time to consider these matters, but that is the position as I understand it to be.
I have a few questions on the issue of costs. I can speak with some experience on this issue as I have been the subject of the tribunal for 13 years. I remind the Taoiseach that the Moriarty tribunal is supposed to be an inquiry chaired by an independent chairman, which is what was established by the Oireachtas. However, from my experience of the tribunal, Mr. Justice Moriarty conceded control a long time ago to his legal team.
I am making the point with regard to costs, that the legal team for the Moriarty tribunal has taken control and because it has become both accuser and prosecutor, we have prolonged proceedings. Senior counsel for the tribunal are being paid an average of €2,350 per day. The figures and records we have received through the Freedom of Information Act show that senior counsel for the tribunal, mysteriously, work an average of six days a week. This equates to approximately €14,000 per week. Therefore, each senior counsel for the tribunal - at a time of economic crisis - is guaranteed a cheque in the post every month for a minimum of €55,000. Who in the Taoiseach's Department or in the Department of Finance signs off on this work? For example, does Mr. Justice Moriarty sign off on the bills that come through his tribunal? When these bills get to the Taoiseach's office, who is accountable for signing off on these funds to senior counsel on the tribunal? What has happened the promise by Government to reduce the level of costs incurred by the legal teams for tribunals?
I was in the House years ago when the then Minister, Charlie McCreevy, guaranteed the figures would be reduced and brought into line with what would be considered a norm. What is happening with regard to the costs of this tribunal is outrageous. At a time when costs are being reduced generally and impositions are being placed on people, particularly the vulnerable in society, I cannot understand how the issue of tribunal costs is not being tackled. There is an issue of accountability with regard to these costs. A rich gravy train runs daily on a continuous track between the Department of Finance, the Taoiseach's office and Dublin Castle. It is time somebody in the Department of the Taoiseach took control of the issue. The Taoiseach said the sole member of the tribunal said the report would be complete in a few months.
This tribunal will continue to accrue exorbitant costs and continue to be legally challenged for as long as tribunals insist on making findings to suit their theories, rather than basing a report on solid facts substantiated by evidence. That is the problem with this tribunal and the reason it has been running for so long. I have been speaking to legal practitioners in the community. As a result of my involvement with the tribunal I am regularly approached by senior legal practitioners who are seriously concerned that the tribunal system is bringing the legal profession into disrepute due to the existence of this bonanza or gravy train.
I have a final comment on the cost of the tribunal. It is a great pity that this legal jamboree has not been televised for the last 13 years. If it had been, there would have been public outrage at what people saw on their televisions and the Oireachtas would have been forced to act long ago to bring this legal monster under control.
The question of legal fees was settled in 2002. A particular issue arose with this tribunal regarding an inadvertent rate of €2,500 per day agreed with senior counsel, which should have been fixed at €2,250 per day. I have replied extensively on that to various questions in the House. A reduction of 8% was imposed last year and a further 15% reduction was imposed this year. I understand and acknowledge the point that the legal costs of proceedings of this duration mount up considerably. On that basis the House has been prepared, for the purposes of ensuring that the tribunal would complete its work in a short period of time, to have this matter finalised by now or imminently. I understand there is only one other witness available to give evidence. Assuming that does not have an impact in terms of calling other people as a result, the finalisation of the report could proceed.
I am at a disadvantage in that I am not in a position to comment on the work of the tribunal in so far as I do not wish anything I say to interfere with the independence of the tribunal and its independent functioning. It was established by the Oireachtas and it is ultimately a matter for the Oireachtas to finalise its judgments in all these matters in so far as finality is not achieved at the earliest possible date.
If the Moriarty tribunal continues into the coming year, it will be entering its 14th year in session. Given the long period for which it has sat and the exorbitant fees that have been paid to legal representatives, which has sadly been accommodated by the Government's failure to implement the signalled reduction in fees which were announced by the Taoiseach's predecessor in the Dáil, and given the absence of any report, does the Taoiseach not believe this has led to a serious undermining of public confidence not only in this tribunal but in the tribunal process itself? Does the Taoiseach not believe it is time for the Houses of the Oireachtas to take the matter in hand and try to restore some credibility to the Moriarty tribunal and to the tribunal process? Would he consider asking the Houses of the Oireachtas, which initiated the tribunal, to set a date for a final report or would he consider insisting on an interim report or a report based on particular modules of the tribunal process over the years? Surely it is time to seriously consider making an intervention to try and rescue some credibility from this long and very unsatisfactory process.
I again emphasise it is a matter for the Oireachtas, not the Government, to decide on any change of policy on the tribunal or anything to do with it. Were the Government, as Government, at any time to have indicated or, in view of the correspondence that it was in receipt of, to proceed with a proposal which meant the replacement of counsel, counsel resigning or the sole member resigning, or were anything to happen in that sphere as a result of any proactive step by Government, I can only imagine what the response of the Opposition would have been or certainly what the political charges would have been in respect of that. The Government is in a somewhat invidious position here in the absence of an agreed position by everyone in the Oireachtas as to what should happen in any given set of circumstances.
I do not have the correspondence before me now and I do not wish to go into that aspect of the matter. The point I am making is that the Government was anxious not to do anything that would be portrayed in any way as some sort of political interference by Government, as Government, into a tribunal of inquiry that was established by the Oireachtas, and that is something that would be understood by everybody.
It is a matter for the Oireachtas at any time to decide how matters should go. I am merely indicating here that my understanding of the situation from correspondence from the sole member is that the tribunal is in a position to finalise the second report, upon which the Oireachtas awaits and in respect of some matters that were entered into.
I agree the duration of the tribunal has been something which, as a matter of policy, the Oireachtas has sought to address for the future in terms of different methods other than the Act of the 1920s under which tribunals of inquiry are established as means by which we can investigate matters of public interest or urgent public importance but I am not in a position to state anything further about the workings of the tribunal. It has been a costly exercise.
I would also make the point that in 2006 the Comptroller and Auditor General's report pointed out that the tribunal drew attention to the downstream gains to the Exchequer arising from its establishment and the conduct of its proceedings and noted from evidence to it in 2006 from the Chairman of the Revenue Commissioners that as well as specific sums of some €8.5 million recovered from individuals directly connected with the tribunals' proceedings, the work had contributed to the cultivation of a climate or culture of disclosure in financial and fiscal areas.
That being said, we do not know what the third party costs will be. That is a matter that must be adjudged now in the light of recent Supreme Court judgments and must be taken into account as well. It is not possible for me to be any more specific than that other than to state that these are matters for the Oireachtas to consider at any time.
-----the Taoiseach put the onus on the Houses of the Oireachtas to take any decision but the proposition in the first place came from his predecessor. The proposition was put to the Houses of the Oireachtas by the then Taoiseach and such a decision must be triggered by a proposition which, logically, should come from the same seat. It is not a situation of it being up to the Houses of the Oireachtas. It must have a genesis. Something must give rise to a decision being taken.
I would put it to the Taoiseach that the onus and responsibility rests with him in conjunction with his colleagues to look at what can be done at this point in time to, as I indicated already, rescue some credibility from what has been a most unsatisfactory process. I do not for a moment believe that there are Members in this House who would take a contrary view if the proposition that he would put was clearly intended to address the serious deficiencies.
The other argument used in the past was that somehow there was a European obligation that would make a system of administrative sanctions a legal impossibility. The argument was made in 2005, during discussions on the Sea Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction Bill, which eventually became law in 2006, that Ireland was precluded from introducing administrative sanctions by the European Commission as they would not contain the dissuasive element necessary to enforce the goals of the Common Fisheries Policy.
Such an argument conveniently ignores the views of the European Commission and is simply answered. The European Commission and the Parliament have consistently called for administrative sanctions to be introduced to enforce fisheries compliance, most recently in November 2009. As of 1 January 2010, Ireland is bound by a fisheries enforcement regulation drafted by the European Commission, which introduces a nascent system of Europe-wide administrative sanctions. It seems curious that the EU has, we are told, counselled against the introduction of administrative sanctions in Irish fisheries while at the same time drafting its own scheme. This Bill provides the State with the opportunity to draft an administrative scheme that will act in tandem with our coming European obligations. However, the main point regarding Europe and our inhibition about introducing a scheme of administrative sanctions in the fishing sector is that Ireland is the only member state that does not use such a scheme. In recent years, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and England and Wales have all introduced systems of administrative sanctions. Again, it seems unlikely that these schemes, which are working successfully as we speak, are being operated in defiance of European policy. That is not and has never been the case, and it is high time we stopped hiding behind non-existent European objections.
If the proposals in my Bill are not accepted we will be isolated as the odd man out in Europe. The aim of the amending Bill is to provide an improved enforcement mechanism which will allow for an appropriate fine to be imposed to punish less serious infractions. Such an approach will reduce the costs and uncertainty for both fishermen and sea fishery protection services. It will lead to faster conclusion of cases and the avoidance by fishermen of criminal records, with the associated stigma, for minor offences. Above all, it will promote a greater culture of compliance by allowing sea fisheries protection officers to levy on-the-spot fines for a wide variety of minor and technical fishery offences.
I am indebted to the Oireachtas Library and Research Service, particularly its senior law researcher, John Kenny BL, for the extensive examination it conducted on my behalf on the feasibility of introducing administrative sanctions into Irish fisheries legislation. What is clear from this research is that while the Common Fisheries Policy does indeed require a dissuasive national scheme, there is no reason this should exclude a complementary layer of administrative sanctions to control minor or technical infractions.
The attitude of the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority, which I am glad to see represented here, is also very interesting. At the moment the SFPA is armed with a legislative blunderbuss and nothing else. It can prosecute or do nothing. When it prosecutes, even for minor offences, the fishing boat skipper must tie up his boat, sometimes for weeks on end. He faces loss of income, court costs, fines, possible suspension of his fishing licence, and even forfeiture of his catch and gear, which is mandatory for a conviction on indictment and for a second summary conviction. The deck-hands face loss of earnings and eventual loss of their jobs.
We should recall the evidence given last July by a representative of the SFPA to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. It states:
We have an enforcement strategy because we are empowered to enforce the legislation. If we had more powers, such as giving warning letters and administrative sanctions, we would start as we do in the area of food safety, by issuing advice, guidance, warning letters, administrative sanctions and prosecutions through the court. The compliance strategy would look at graded steps towards prosecution and the barriers to compliance on the other side of the equation and try to deal with them. That is where we are in terms of enforcement with our compliance strategy. At present we do not have the gift to issue administrative sanctions.
I would like to give the SFPA this gift.
Fishermen want administrative sanctions; those who are charged with enforcement - that is, the SFPA - want administrative sanctions; the European Union wants administrative sanctions; and the Supreme Court has clearly ratified the administrative sanction approach involved in a regime of fixed penalty notices. It is my belief that virtually all members of this House, particularly those from our coastal communities, are in favour of this approach. I therefore strongly urge the acceptance of the Fine Gael Bill, an empowering Bill which will allow the Minister - by the way, I congratulate the new Minister of State, Deputy Connick, on his appointment - to introduce regulations.
If we pass this Bill, as I believe we should, this will allow the various stakeholders, including Department officials, the SFPA, the fishing organisations and anyone else with an interest in this area, to work out a system of regulations to implement the Bill, as has happened successfully in England and Wales, Scotland and, most recently, Northern Ireland. There is absolutely no reason this cannot happen here. To make it happen, all I ask is for all parties to support this Bill.
I commend the Bill to the House.
-----I saw three Spanish boats, which looked like double-decker buses, in the harbour. Given that I had time on my side, I waited to see whether those three boats would be inspected, but they were not. Meanwhile, it was brought to my attention that a file had been sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions about an Irish boat in Killybegs that was found to be 4 kg over its quota. That is why we are here. Something needs to be done.
As outlined by Deputy O'Keeffe, and from the evidence given to us by the SFPA, we are hammering our own fishermen. In 2008 the SFPA carried out 2,232 inspections of Irish vessels and only 746 of foreign vessels. Up to June 2009 there were 832 inspections of Irish vessels and 311 of foreign vessels. I put it to the Minister that our fishing industry has been brought to its knees, not only by what has happened over the years regarding quotas and time at sea, but also by the regime of criminal sanctions.
When this Bill was launched in Castletownbere, I commented on the number of boats that were tied up there and the large crowd that attended. It was sad that there was such a crowd of fishermen there; they should have been out fishing, but for various reasons, one of which was the possibility of criminal sanctions, they could not. The argument has been put forward that the Department is hiding behind the Attorney General. Deputy O'Keeffe has investigated this, with a lot of help, and he has found there is no constitutional problem with the provisions of the Bill.
While I was in Dingle I sought out a member of the SFPA and asked him why those three Spanish boats had not been boarded or checked.
I will conclude with this. I think it is the responsibility of the Taoiseach in the first instance to take the initiative and I believe this would be a very welcome development. The Taoiseach has not explained again in the course of his answers today why it was that Government failed to implement the signalled reduced fees that should have been imposed on those who were legally involved in the process over all these years.
No, not today because if the whole purpose of Question Time is to answer the same question I answered on a previous occasion there is not much point in dealing with today's issue. Today's issue is whether this report is near its finalisation and what is the information that I, as Taoiseach, have received from the chairman of the tribunal. I have indicated this to the Dáil, the Dáil has raised certain questions about it and I have answered them to the best of my ability. The strong advice is I cannot speak about the workings of the tribunal so that I do not interfere in any way with the independence of the tribunal. I am prepared to talk about the costs of the tribunal and any other factual information Deputies may request. In respect of whether we have any idea when it might be completed, I have given that information. However, there are matters before the tribunal which are not before the House. The tribunal was set up so that those matters would not be dealt with in the House but rather they would be dealt with somewhere else. I can only give the information that is consistent with all of these constraints.
The Taoiseach has given the impression that the Government is unable to do anything about the legal fees because it fears the Opposition would take issue with such action and if, as a consequence of doing something on the legal fees, legal personnel were to walk away from the tribunal. I wish to make the Labour Party view quite clear. We have never raised any objection and will not raise any objection to the reduction in the legal fees. Indeed, we expected this would have taken place some time ago, as was promised. We were told that Mr. McCreevy was going to reduce them. We were told that legal team fees would not be paid once public hearings had concluded. Indeed, given the recent reductions in the legal fees paid by the State for other purposes, I am surprised that some initiative has not been taken in this regard.
The Taoiseach says he cannot put the correspondence from the sole member on the record of the House. Again I invite him to respond to the suggestion that the House should now communicate with the sole member and that a way should be found to agree a communication with the sole member, drawing his attention to the initial desire of this House that this tribunal should be conducted economically and as quickly as possible and seeking at least an interim or a progress report from the sole member which the House could then consider.
There has been a reduction of 23% in the legal fees as a result of decisions taken in recent months, to take account of that situation. I do not hold a brief for that; I am just trying to see that this matter would be brought to finality as quickly as possible. It is a matter for the Oireachtas how it wishes to proceed-----
I took the lead in that both prior to last week and since last week I have written about the matter. We have received the views of the sole member of the tribunal on that matter. I do not think anything can be added to that by way of a further letter because we now know the current position. We are all agreed we would like to see this matter brought to a conclusion as soon as possible.
Last week a woman who is the mother of two intellectually challenged children called to see me. Her husband did not make a full declaration in respect of social welfare and now the Department wants €8,000 back from him immediately.
I will make my point. I refer to the time of the previous Attorney General. There was what is known as an error of transcription in respect of legal fees paid to senior counsel. These were determined at €2,250 but the error of transcription stated €2,500. There was no pay back because it was deemed it would be appropriate, as an exceptional measure, to leave it the way it was. I raised this matter before. One of the tribunal's senior counsel was paid more than €1 million. None of it was paid back. The Government is in charge of that element of what happened. How can the Taoiseach justify a failure to pursue overpayments, due to errors of transcription or whatever when, at the other end of the scale, people will be hounded for relatively minor amounts? At the other end of the scale-----
------we have no problem signing cheques of whatever description for banks. In the case of this tribunal, in respect of the matter I raised before with him whereby there was an overpayment of more than €1 million, is it intended that will be followed and paid back?
The point I am making is that issue was dealt with at that time in the way it was, based on the advice we received. As I said, I do not hold any brief for what the legal fees are, but my focus is on trying to bring this matter to finality quickly.