Tuesday, 25 May 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
With no disrespect to the Minister of State, Deputy Heydon, I regret that the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, is not here this evening to take this debate. He is very much aware of the difficulty facing our seafood producers and processors at this time. The programme for Government, on page 69, refers to "a greater focus on... stakeholder engagement... centrally co-ordinated by the Department of the Taoiseach". On page 70, there is an undertaking to implement the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority, SFPA, capability review, which was carried out by PricewaterhouseCoopers and includes 46 recommendations, with a view to "enhancing governance" and considering "any other measures that may be necessary". There is also a specific undertaking to "work to retain factory weighing of... fish".
Why would the Government not seek to retain factory weighing of fish given that 16,500 people are employed in the sector? It is not an issue that arises only in Killybegs, Castletownbere, Kilmore Quay and Rossaveal. There are 30 processors in the east, in the Minister of State's region. There are more than 50 processors across counties Donegal, Sligo, Leitrim, Mayo, Galway and Clare, 32 in the south east and up to 160 nationally. There are approximately 5,000 people working in those plants. In Gurteen, in my constituency, Green Isle Foods, also known as Donegal Catch, employs 108 people. However, the industry has had to deal with utter stupidity and ineptitude, as underlined by PricewaterhouseCoopers in its report on the SFPA. The report states: "The overall conclusion of this review is that the SFPA is not working effectively and requires urgent attention." Yet, because of its interventions, on 13 April last, the European Commission informed the State of the decision to revoke Ireland's control plan.
The impact of this is that the SFPA is now insisting that all catch is weighed on the pier before it goes to the factories. As somebody who managed a beef export plant and processed 35,000 cattle a year - not seafood, but the principle is the same - it seems to me that nobody in the SFPA must have a clue about hazard analysis and critical control procedures in terms of food safety. They must not have a clue about what is involved in maintaining the quality of pelagic fish when it is brought ashore. Over-handling reduces the grading and makes it less exportable and less likely to achieve decent market prices. This, in turn, impacts on the 16,000 employees of the sector, whether they be producers, the trawlermen out at sea, people involved in logistics backup or the processors in the factories.
It seems the Minister has said, although not directly to me, that he cannot intervene in this matter. He must intervene. From 1 June, all 160 processors, instead of being able to weigh the fish, whether it be shellfish, crab or lobster - all catches are impacted, pelagic and demersal - will have to get it weighed on the pier. This plan is ridiculous in the extreme. It demands that either the Minister of State, the Minister or the Taoiseach go to Brussels and intervene with the Commission immediately to save the industry. We must secure transitional arrangements to protect the 16,000 jobs that are located in every part of the country. I gave the example of Gurteen, an inland village in Sligo. There are 32-odd processors in the Minister of State's region. I hope he will be open to the direct intervention that is required and demanded by the many people involved in this industry.
I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue, which we in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine take with the utmost seriousness. I extend the apologies of my colleague, the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, who is in Brussels this evening and very much regrets that he is not able to take this debate. We recognise that this issue is giving rise to serious practical problems for our fishing vessels in making landings. The recent revocation by the European Commission of Ireland's sea-fisheries control plan removed a derogation that permitted all fish, including whitefish, shellfish and pelagic fish such as mackerel, to be weighed in factories. This has the result that all fish will be required to be weighed on the quayside on landing.
At the outset, I must set out the strict legal position in this regard. Under the Sea-Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction Act 2006, all fisheries control operational issues of this nature are matters exclusively for the SFPA and the Naval Service. The Minister is expressly precluded in the Act from getting involved in any fisheries control operational matters. Regarding the revocation of Ireland's control plan, the position is that responsibility rests solely with the SFPA and the Minister has no role in seeking any transitional arrangements. Following a European Commission audit in 2018 relating to land-based fisheries controls in the State, Ireland received a formal decision of the Commission's intention to conduct an administrative inquiry under Article 102(2) of the 2009 EU fisheries control regulation to evaluate Ireland's capacity to apply the rules of the Common Fisheries Policy, CFP. The findings of the inquiry, which were communicated to Ireland in December 2020, deemed the Irish control and sanctioning systems to be unsatisfactory. The Commission has put forward a specific package of measures to address the issues raised.
Many of the issues arising in the administrative inquiry are operational matters for the SFPA and, as I said, the Minister is precluded under statute from getting involved in these matters. The Department has commenced a process of engagement with the EU Commission in association with the SFPA, which is responsible for operational matters. In the context of this engagement, the Deputy will appreciate that the Minister is not in a position to comment on the Commission's findings and the package of measures the Commissioner has set out. To do so at this juncture would risk prejudice to Ireland's position.
In the context of the administrative inquiry, Ireland was notified last month of a Commission implementing decision revoking the approval of the Irish control plan submitted for the weighing of fishery products. The European Commission has deemed that Ireland's obligations arising from the 2009 EU fisheries control regulation were not being met by the Irish control plan as the risk of non-compliance with the rules of the Common Fisheries Policy could not be minimised. The Commission implementing decision in relation to the revocation of the control plan states that:
...operators did not have in place a “weighing system fit for purpose”, as provided for under ... the control plan and the audit identified manipulation of weighing systems. Moreover, although aware of those shortcomings, Ireland did not take appropriate measures to address such noncompliance, in particular by withdrawing the permission to weigh after transport as foreseen in ... the control plan. Consequently, the control plan does not minimise the risk of systematic manipulation of weighing pelagic catches in Ireland and the under-declaration of catches by operators.
In terms of next steps, the Minister has been advised that the SFPA has engaged directly with industry to ensure fishers and processors - those very important jobs the Deputy has highlighted - are familiar with the changes required to comply with EU weighing requirements, and we will continue to engage with the industry on this matter.
There has been not one report on this area, not two, but three. They were respectively the Wolfe report, the Moran report, and the third was by the great company that is next door to us, namely, PricewaterhouseCoopers, PwC. I am sure it was at great expense. There were 46 recommendations. It said the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority was not fit for purpose. Our programme for Government commits to changing and reforming it. The SFPA has unilaterally stuffed the whole industry in the hedge and 16,000 jobs are at risk as a result. Therefore I do not care what legislation is in place since 2005.
I will give the Minister of State an example of what could have been done, what must be done now, and indeed what was done in 2004 and 2005. At that time, we had a proper Minister with responsibility for the marine, with delegated authority, former Deputy Pat The Cope Gallagher. He went to Brussels and met the Commissioner in charge of fisheries, Joe Borg. He made the case that we could not have pierside weighing because, unlike in some other countries, our plants are away from the harbours. Then Commissioner Borg listened and understood. He came all the way to Ireland and visited Killybegs Seafoods. He saw it all in action and put a system in place. The Minister of State should not listen to me but to PwC next door. The SFPA is not fit for purpose, such that our programme for Government says we must deal with it, it has unilaterally stuffed us and all the jobs in the fishing and related industries, and we are saying we do not want to know about that.
While the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, is in Brussels, the Minister of State should give him a ring after this and ask him to go to Commissioner Virginijus Sinkevičius, who is responsible for fisheries, and get a transitional arrangement for our seafood processors and producers.
To answer the Deputy's question about why the Minister is in Brussels this evening, he is out there fighting for Irish farmers and Irish agriculture in probably the most important aspect of the CAP trilogues, the super trilogues, that are happening over the next couple of days. Farmers in Deputy MacSharry's constituency and mine take a great interest in what he is doing there.
There is an element of shooting the messenger in some of the Deputy's commentary. I bring him back to the point that the decisions being made here relate to EU audits and decisions. The Minister has been advised the SFPA intends to draft a new control plan with delay for consideration by the European Commission. It advised that potentially this draft plan would be applicable to landings of most species, with the specific exception of landings of bulk-stored pelagic species. The Minister understands, and I wish to reassure the House, that the SFPA will be consulting industry during this process. It is important to be aware that any a new draft plan must be accepted by the Commission and formally adopted by it under legislation.
I reassure the Deputy and the House that the Minister and the Government take very seriously the Commission's findings relating to fisheries control failures, which are at the heart of this issue, including in relation to the revocation of Ireland's control plan. The Minister and the Government are fully committed to having an effective, dissuasive and proportionate system of fisheries control in place. That is really critical. Our reputation for having good controls in place is crucial as well to those 16,000 jobs the Deputy has referenced and which are so important. I thank the Deputy again for raising this important issue and allowing me to put those remarks on the record.