Wednesday, 22 September 2021
Sea-Fisheries (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2021: Second Stage (Resumed)
It is unfortunate that the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, is not here to listen and partake in this debate. That speaks volumes as to the regard in which he holds the fishing community. This Bill is being rammed through without-----
The Minister was attending another event but he is en route. As the Deputy knows, there is a transcript of the debate as well and the Minister will read it. There should be less of the games. Let us focus on the key issues.
I am glad to hear that the Minister isen route. Hopefully, he will be here for my contribution.
This Bill is being rammed through despite the opposition from all of the main fishing representative groups. Fishermen are yet again being told what to do rather than being consulted and listened to in order that the necessary compromises can be found. In my contribution I want to outline my serious concerns with regard to how the Minister and Government treat the fishing community. I will specifically refer to the case of a local fisherman in my constituency of Wicklow, CJ Gaffney, and the Gaffney family, and how they have been mistreated by the current Minister and Government.
The case revolves around the purchase of a vessel, the MV Mary Kate, by CJ Gaffney in 2007. Mr. Gaffney spent massive amounts of money on the purchase of this vessel. It was purchased in good faith and deemed fit for purpose by several surveys and passed as seaworthy by the Marine Survey Office. It was subsequently found to have a very serious stability issue, which was identified by Mr. Gaffney when the boat nearly capsized when he was out at sea. Subsequent tests revealed that there was in excess of 20 tonnes of unaccounted steel contained within the vessel. Mr. Gaffney and his family spent large amounts of money trying to rectify that serious flaw within the boat, one that had not been picked up when the vessel was deemed seaworthy. The boat was shortened and the family tried to address all of the issues. Unfortunately, money was then hard to come by and the banks intervened.
Since that time, the family has experienced serious difficulties in terms of their mental health and well-being, their welfare and, particularly, financially. Ten years ago, the current Taoiseach and leader of Fianna Fáil, when in opposition, sat down with the family in the Arklow Bay Hotel and stated that his hands were tied because he was not in government but that if and when he found himself in government, this was an issue to which he would give serious attention and consideration.
The Minister, Deputy McConalogue, is also very aware of this particular situation because he has also spoken to the Gaffney family. The family are asking for compensation because through no fault of their own they have ended up with this mess, which is a mess that was signed off on. They are now seriously out of pocket as a result of that. This has been brought up in Europe and has been backwards and forwards with different MEPs from Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Sinn Féin all raising it, in fairness to them. The Fine Gael MEP, Seán Kelly, received correspondence on this from the European Commission quite recently. I will quote it because it is very interesting. It says:
In terms of addressing the loss that Mr Gaffney has suffered, on a previous occasion the possibility was outlined that the case might exceptionally be addressed through the European Fund for Maritime and Fisheries, but that this was a decision for the Irish authorities as they oversee the allocation of such funding. The Commission could not instruct them in this regard.
Quite clearly, in a letter from the European Commission, the Government has been given the solution to this crazy situation which has hung over the Gaffney family for well over a decade now. The Commission has given the Government an out in pointing to a specific funding stream that could be availed of to pay compensation to this family. Unfortunately, we have seen a Minister, Deputy McConalogue, who seems to be very good at playing pass the parcel because he does not want to take any responsibility in this. It has been passed between his Department and that of the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan. Neither Department is willing to take responsibility, do the right thing and use the fund that has been identified to pay out the compensation.
I listened intently to the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, when he was on "Today with Claire Byrne" on 17 September. He spoke about another very serious and important issue, namely, mica. Rightly, he said he has 100% support for the unfortunate homeowners whose houses have been blighted by mica. He went on to say the situation was not their fault, that they are living with this stress daily and nightly and that they were continuing to pay mortgages. There are great similarities between the experiences of those families and that of the Gaffney family. CJ Gaffney has a situation which is not of his making or brought about through his fault. The Government is rightly looking at the mica situation with respect to compensation for the families to help them rebuild their homes. That is the right thing to do and the process must be sped up and 100% redress given. However, the situation of CJ Gaffney is also very clear. The situation is not of his making or due to his fault. It has caused huge levels of stress and anxiety for himself and his family. Now, through Government intransigence, we have a situation where nobody in the Government is prepared to take this on and deal with it once and for all. The solution is there.
I will give the Minister of State a copy of the letter to pass on to the Minister, Deputy McConalogue. He has seen it dozens of times because Mr. Gaffney and his family have sent it on. Seán Kelly, MEP, has sent it on. There has been correspondence backwards and forwards but the Minister is refusing to take this on. At the outset, I spoke about the scepticism about how this Government and its predecessors have treated the fishing community. Is it any wonder they do not have any faith in this Government when we have fisherman in CJ Gaffney's situation and when a solution is handed to the Government, it is not willing to actually pursue it? It is not going to cost the Government a penny to compensate this family. I will give the Minister of State this letter. I ask that he please pass it on to the Minister. I heard what he said about the Minister being caught up. I would have preferred the Minister be here in person to have the conversation with me, but I will give it to the Minister of State. I ask that he take it forward. I call on the Taoiseach to act, given his previous comments to the family that when in power he would take this on and deal with it. It is now incumbent on the Taoiseach to sit down with the two Ministers who are refusing and are failing this family in terms of addressing it once and for all. I call on him to intervene to ensure the right thing is done, that this particular fund is drawn down and the compensation paid to the Gaffney family.
The Library and Research Service, LRS, digest has been very useful for many of us because it has encapsulated many of the concerns that have been brought to our attention. As Members will know, it has issued a paper in response to the Bill. Certainly, many issues were raised in respect of the Bill at pre-legislative scrutiny, PLS, stage, which must be sufficiently addressed by the Government. In table 2 of the LRS digest, it has supplied a traffic light dashboard comparing the Bill as published to the committee's PLS recommendations.
I will highlight four key issues inherent in the Bill and quote directly from the report. The first issue, per the committee report, is:
Questionable fairness of allocating points system. The standard of proof required threshold is based upon balance of probabilities rather than culpability beyond a reasonable doubt.
In their PLS the Joint Committee identified the potentially problematic nature of a Determination Panel concluding on the balance of probabilities as evidenced by the report of the Authority, rather than a threshold for proof required.
All alleged serious infringements are made by means of a written report by the Authority. Section 6 of the Bill provides that a Determination Panel will be established for the purpose of determining whether a serious infringement has occurred and whether a person was, at the time, the master of the sea-fishing boat.
In addressing an appeals process, an Appeals Officer will be assigned at the Authority. A time period of 30 days is available in which to submit to the Appeals Officer. The appeal must be in writing, by the master and is subject to a fee (to be determined).
The issue raised by the committee was that "The Bill does not address concerns regarding the ‘balance of probabilities’ providing the required threshold of proof, nor how existing reports and/or points may or may not be considered in the Authority’s assessment of further alleged infringements." That is the first issue.
The second issue is the weighing of fishery products in-factory. The committee's PLS report - and I quote again from the digest -states "The Bill as published does not cover or address this issue."
The third issue is the application of penalty points to EU and non-EU vessels. There was "particular concern that UK vessels in Irish waters are advantaged". According to the digest:
The Bill does not provide for assigning penalty points to or having a register of points assigned to foreign nationals. Instead, a provision in Section 6 (15I) includes that points assigned to a foreign master will be notified in writing to the relevant authorities of the relevant Member State. The UK is not specified. Thus the Bill does not provide for the Authority dealing with serious infringements by UK fishing masters in Irish territorial waters in the same way as provided for other EU Member States.
The fourth key issue is fair administration and Sea Fisheries Protection Authority, SFPA, capacity and resourcing with regard to the register of penalty points. At the prelegislative scrutiny stage, the committee stated that the Bill did not have provisions for organisational capacity or resourcing for the SFPA.
These are just four issues. I have quoted directly from the Bill digest because its language best encapsulates some of the key issues exercising communities throughout the country. I hope that, in response to this Stage of the Bill, the Minister who is in possession might further articulate how these very pertinent and key issues are to be dealt with.
I sometimes question our priorities when it comes to the fishing sector, the fishing industry and our fishers. This has been probably the toughest 12 months to face the sector. We had the introduction of a controversial penalty points system at this time last year. It would be an understatement to say it did not go down well with the fishing sector. We had Brexit, as a result of which the sector and the Irish fleet lost 15% of its quota share. That was a great financial blow to the sector, to the fishers themselves and to coastal communities. That impact will be felt into the future. Then, earlier this year, we had the removal of the control plan. This has led to a ludicrous situation in which boats are having to weigh their fish on the pier. This has had a very significant detrimental impact on the industry. Boats are coming in and the catch, which is frozen in boxes, is having to be de-iced, taken out of the boxes, weighed on the pier, put back in the boxes and re-iced. This process sometimes takes hours, which also has an impact on quality. These are all things that have happened over the last 12 months that have led to fishers in their hundreds, if not thousands, sailing their boats into Cork Harbour and into Dublin to show their disappointment with the fishing sector's situation.
The first thing we do when we come back to the Dáil is introduce legislation to provide for further penalty points when we should be prioritising the key issues. Where is the submission to reintroduce a control plan that would allow the fishing sector to do what it has been doing and weigh fish in factories in a transparent, traceable and visible way? That should be our priority. Our other priority should be to address the massive inequality in quota share. International boats have 85% of the quota share in Irish waters. That is where our priorities should be when we are talking about fishing and sea fisheries. Our priority should not be further penalty points. Another priority should be the fair distribution of the Brexit adjustment reserve, BAR, fund to minimise the impact of this 15% quota loss and the impact the Brexit trade agreement is having on the fishing sector. That is where our priorities should be.
We should be ensuring a fair distribution right across the board. There has been a lot of recommendations coming from talks the task force is having. There is a suggestion that the lion's share of the portion of the BAR fund allocated to fishing will go to the big refrigerated seawater, RSW, fleets in Donegal. If that is what emerges, that is completely unacceptable. Far more than those RSW fleets have been impacted by Brexit. There are boats right throughout west Cork in the whitefish sector and the demersal sector. Fishers who have mackerel quota have been also greatly impacted by the loss of that quota. The inshore sector has been also particularly impacted. All these sectors have been impacted not only by Brexit, but by an incredibly tough two years in respect of Covid and drops in the market. That is where our priorities should be. Our priorities should be the control plan, fairly sharing fish not just in Irish waters, but in European waters, and ensuring the BAR fund is distributed in a fair way that reaches the fishing sector, the crews on boats and coastal communities. We should not be introducing more penalty points.
On the inshore sector, I understand the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, met with members of the National Inshore Fishermen's Association, NIFA, in Tralee recently. The sector has been ignored and overlooked for years. It has some very simple requests. It wants its fair share of the Brexit adjustment reserve because it has been impacted. It also wants a de minimisonce-off payment from the Exchequer to help its fishers through the incredibly difficult period they are having to negotiate. That is vitally important.
I will also bring up a scheme for which we are told funding has been stopped. I refer to the very innovative and very helpful scheme whereby children in communities, schools and service providers such as CoAction are introduced to fishing through Inland Fisheries Ireland, whether on the shore or in lakes and rivers. It has been an incredibly successful project but I understand its funding has been pulled. I urge the Department to reinstate that funding as soon as possible.
I have no doubt this legislation will pass. I will be voting with the Government, as I always do, but I ask the Minister, having seen how controversial the statutory instrument was, to consider those two items: the balance of probability issue and the issue of points staying with skippers or masters who are convicted and given penalty points even when these are overturned in a court of law. It is not right and it needs to be looked at. The Bill needs to be amended in this respect and I urge the Minister to look at that.
Before discussing the specifics of the Bill, it is important to note the background to the fisheries penalty points system. Just over a year ago, the Taoiseach, then acting Minister for the marine, signed a new system into law without consulting the sector. This was the fourth attempt to bring in such a system after High Court rulings in favour of the fishing sector and the Dáil voting down its introduction in 2018. This entire issue was mired in controversy before it even began. The lack of engagement with those affected is not only disrespectful but creates hostility to a system that is supposed to be about ensuring better practice straight away. The disregard for fishers and coastal communities further deteriorates the relationship between the Department and the sector.
Last year, many of us in the Opposition pointed out the inherent flaws in the Government’s penalty points system. It lacks due process. Points can be issued on a balance of probabilities, which is a worrying threshold that has no place in any State regulatory process. The right of appeal to the High Court is very limited and, in the case of a successful appeal, the penalty points would still remain on a licence. This system seems intentionally hostile by design.
Our coastal and island communities deserve better. The fishing sector should be central to creating a viable and fair process. The only way successful and progressive policies can be developed is in genuine partnership with the communities and businesses affected.
This is all incredibly frustrating because a large part of the opposition to this new system is entirely of the Government’s making. A means of regulating the sector and reprimanding bad practices could have been welcomed as a means for rewarding the good work of most of the sector but instead we have this mess.
In relation to the Bill, there are a number of points I wish to raise. First, the Minister emphasised yesterday that Ireland is required to implement a points system urgently as we are subject to EU infringement proceedings and the related financial penalties. This type of rationale is deployed by the Government too regularly to justify bad policy. We are presented with a flawed system and told we have to pass it as soon as possible. This type of approach cannot be used to vindicate unacceptable legislation.
We were due to have a system in place by 1 January 2012. Successive Governments and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine have failed to do this, not fishing communities and this House. There was no mention of these failures over many years by the Minister yesterday, which leaves me with little confidence that any lessons have been learned.
Second, a key problem with this system, reflected in numerous submissions from the sector and in the joint committee’s report, is that the threshold of proof required is based on a balance of probabilities rather than the usual standard of culpability, beyond reasonable doubt. This goes against normative principles of justice and creates a structure with too much scope for arbitrary and inconsistent rulings. Not only is this morally questionable, but it undermines the system. This key issue will have to be addressed.
Third, a master or skipper can only appeal to the High Court on a matter of law, not on the substance of the case. This is an extraordinary limitation on an individual's access to justice. Related to this is a situation whereby if a master is found innocent of the alleged breaches in court, the penalty points applied under this legislation would not be deleted. How can the Government justify that position? It is unbelievable. What is the rationale for this nonsensical measure?
Fourth, the sector has expressed concern over the potential for inconsistencies between the application of penalty points to EU and non-EU vessels. As matters stand, points assigned to a master who is not an Irish citizen will be notified to the authorities of the relevant member state. However, ambiguity exists concerning infringements by fishing masters of non-EU states, including the UK. This lack of clarity means that different masters, according to their nationality, could have different regulatory burdens. Again, this type of variability undercuts any faith in the system.
Fifth, the absence of any reference to weighing fishery products in the Bill is worrying. This is a major issue raised by sector representatives who are seeking the reinstatement of in-factory weighing. There are difficulties around the practicalities of the current system and its effectiveness. The Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine highlighted this in its report but the Bill does not address it. This omission can be seen as an indication of a Government and Department out of touch with the realities on the ground.
Finally, under the EU regulation, the Minister has considerable scope in implementing a penalty points process. I am seeking that the Minister use this scope to produce a system that is based on natural justice and due process, and takes on board the many suggestions made by the sector. We are all in agreement that there needs to be a system in place to ensure compliance with fishing regulations. We should promote best practices through a fair and transparent enforcement approach. The Government’s Bill is far from that.
On the subject of inadequate consultation by the Department, it is important to note that the new law on pair-trawling in the 6-mile nautical zone was overturned simply because there was not adequate consultation by the Department. I urge the Minister to reinstate that law with the adequate consultation as soon as possible.
Government Deputies have told the House today that the inshore sector has been neglected. I could not agree more. We heard a lot about the unfair deal Ireland got in relation to the quota and I fully agree. However, not enough attention was given to the fact that the Minister is in charge of distributing the national quota and 2% of that went to the inshore fisheries sector. The sector accounts for the vast majority of people and vessels working in fisheries and is the kind of sustainable fishing that we should all be getting behind. Instead, 98% of our national quota has gone to roughly 50 boats, which provide far less employment and engage in much less sustainable practices. That issue needs to be addressed.
While I welcome some aspects of the Bill, it is worth viewing it in the context of Irish fisheries policy and our approach to protecting our marine ecosystems. As legislators, we should always be cautious when introducing regulations that impose a bureaucratic burden on citizens. However, when we are considering the protection of the environment and ecosystems, we often frame the debate about environmental regulation as a false war between a busybody State which seeks to unfairly restrict the activities of the likes of farmers and fishermen and those who live off the land and sea who wish to carry on their activities to support their families without encumbrance. We need to wholeheartedly reject this argument. The protection of the environment and ecosystems is in all our interests. When we set up this false war one of the frequent outcomes, especially in the fisheries sector, is delay. This Bill is a result of the delay in introducing a points system in fisheries, a delay so large it resulted in the European Commission withholding funding refunds from the European Maritime and Fisheries Fund.
This is not the only area where we are in trouble for a delay in implementing measures to protect fish stocks. The European Commission has found that how we weigh catches of fish is inconsistent. We have serious faults in how we are implementing the discard ban and this is likely to be subject to a further infringement procedure.
Judicial review proceedings have been initiated to challenge the failure by the EU as a whole under the Common Fisheries Policy to meet a legally defined deadline of ending overfishing in all stocks by 2020. Irish Ministers have been found to lobby at EU level for increased overfishing and quotas beyond scientifically advised levels.
We know there are problems associated with pair trawling, a practice the Green Party wishes to see prohibited, and the marine environment continues to deteriorate due to continued release of plastic waste, including nets and fishing gear.
I understand and sympathise with the plight of the fishing industry, especially post-Brexit. I understand the desire to maintain income levels and reduce red tape. However, we simply have to change the way we approach this issue if we are to have any chance of future generations making a living from the sea. It is in all our interests to protect and restore our fish stocks and marine ecosystems. There is no future in a dead sea.
I welcome the Bill. I hope it will be the first of many Bills and initiatives in the fisheries area that will continue to protect our marine ecosystems and encourage a sustainable fishing industry.
I suppose the reason many of the Deputies are missing is because the debate is about fishing. It is the fishermen of Ireland who will be affected by the decisions the Government is going to make today. I heard what Deputy Leddin had to say and I am disappointed that he does not fully realise the suffering fishermen are experiencing. Stocks are falling throughout the world because we are giving away our quota continuously. The Deputy is happy to stand idly by and accept that by praising this Bill. It will be an astonishingly bad deal for Irish fishers. The Bill aims to criminalise the entire fisheries sector and create an own equal and deeply unfair legal system for fishermen and fisherwomen. On that basis alone, I am completely opposed to it.
There has been an extensive consultation with the Department's legal services division, the Office of the Attorney General and external counsel on this issue to devise a system which is compatible with our legal system and existing legislation. However, there has been a completely inappropriate lack of meaningful consultation with Irish fishers. In scrutinising the general scheme of the Sea-Fisheries (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, the joint committee held public meetings with Department officials and engaged with representatives of the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority, SFPA, and met with and received written submissions from fish producer organisations. The joint committee concluded pre-legislative scrutiny and submitted its findings and concerns in a report by means of a letter dated 21 June 2021, in which the Chair wrote the following.
The Joint Committee expresses its concern at the standard of proof to be used by the determination panel and the appeals officer. The balance of probabilities is to be used as a threshold for applying penalty points rather than culpability beyond a reasonable doubt. Furthermore, the Joint Committee is concerned that penalty points applied under this legislation would not be deleted even if a master is found innocent of the alleged breaches in a court of law. These issues may negatively impact the perceived fairness of the penalty points system. The Joint Committee calls on you to re-examine the standard of proof to be used in the application of penalty points and consider a means by which penalty points may be deleted if a master is found innocent of the alleged offences for which they were applied.
Again, this is an astonishing situation. Good God it was mentioned here already yesterday. If a Deputy was to get penalty points for driving a car yet he or she was actually inside here in the Dáil at the time, and it was found out that a mistake was made by the authorities, the penalty points that had been applied to the licence would be immediately withdrawn, an apology given and we would move on. In this situation, however, if a person is caught then he or she is done and if a person is innocent he she is also done. You cannot win: it is a no-win situation.
A significant issue that has been highlighted in meetings with the fish producers organisations and the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority, SFPA, is the revocation of weighing after transport. There is an urgent need for the SFPA to submit a revised control plan, one which reinstates in-factory weighing across the State, which is a level of oversight by the SFPA and the National Standards Authority of Ireland, NSAI, that is considered to be unmatched in the EU. Any inconsistency that may arise between the application of penalty points to EU and non-EU vessels must be addressed. Such an inconsistency could lead to Irish vessels facing a greater regulatory burden than the UK-registered vessels fishing in Irish waters.
The new system introducing penalty points for masters of fishing vessels is unfair and unbalanced with nonsensical elements, according to the Irish Fish Producers Organisation, IFPO. The Oireachtas committee was told last May that the EU ruling that catches must be weighed at landing rather than at factories is an absolute disaster and totally unworkable. The European Commission has said that operators did not have the weighing systems fit for purpose. In 2018 hauliers had identified manipulation of weighing systems and said the State had not taken appropriate action to address this. The move brought an immediate end to the derogation from the obligation to weigh catches at landing. The Irish Fish Producers Organisation told the committee that it does not oppose the introduction of a points system to punish serious fishing infringes but it does argue that the Bill repeats the mistakes of earlier legislation introduced by the previous Government. The IFPO has said that the only the only grounds for appeal to the High Court are on a point of law, which it says is being introduced to restrict the rights of appeal of fishers who fall foul of the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority. The IFPO told the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine that it is nonsensical that penalty points will be retained by the master even if he or she is acquitted, and that the standard of balance of probability rather than reasonable doubt could potentially destroy livelihood. Anger in the industry is reflected across several other submissions from the fishery sector lobby groups. There are submissions from the Irish South and West Fish Producers Organisation, which argues that the penalty points system could remove an individual's income without that person having recourse to the courts. Potentially, we could have the farcical situation whereby the High Court rules a person as innocent but the penalty points remain on the licence.
That is the whole situation here from start to finish. This is the argument I put to the Minister, Deputy McConalogue. The Minister can see, as with the debates on fishing over past number of years, the number of speakers who have failed to turn up here today to speak on behalf of the fishers in this country. It is deflating to be a fisher to look in on this and to see what is going on here. This debate is flying through the Dáil because many of Deputies have failed to show their faces and fight for their fishers. The penalty points system is making criminals of skippers and even if they are innocent they are still deemed to be guilty. The issue of the weighing crisis at the piers is an absolute disaster, made by the SFPA, with massive losses to the pelagic fleet. The stinking rotten Brexit deal that was done last Christmas and signed up to by this Government is an absolute disgrace. The Green Party is the tail that is wagging this Government. I put it to the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, that he needs to be stronger, that he needs to stand up for these people and understand their livelihoods. The Minister was down in Castletownbere with the Fianna Fáil road show recently but he did not tell any other Oireachtas Members from that area that he was coming. It was a nice secret to go around and pat the backs of the people he has ruined. He has ruined their livelihoods. These people are contacting me and they want out. This is not a way for fishers who want to survive and make a livelihood, which is all they ever wanted all their lives. To add insult to injury the Minister had said in a press release that it was a brilliant meeting. Unfortunately it was sent out the day before he came down. This tells us the disrespect the Minister has. Not only did he fail to notify the Oireachtas Members from West Cork he also disrespected the fishers by putting out a statement on the wrong day that stated he had a very successful discussion with them when he had not discussed anything at all and had not yet even arrived. That is the situation that fishers find themselves in. They get no respect from start to finish.
This has been going on with the current Minister and his predecessors. One after another they have failed to protect the fishers. The Government Deputies are coming in here to back this because the Green Party and the Minister say that it must be done. It is time for someone in Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael to stand up for the people who elected them. That is what they must do. This is a raw deal. It has been one raw deal down on top of the other raw deal, but there is a way out. When the British had to bring in a penalty points system in their time they certainly had to hold negotiations. They were proper negotiations with their fishers, when they were in the EU, with regard to a penalty points system. We did no negotiation. We are asking how high do they want us to jump so we can comply with the rules. Will we ask them how much more of a quota we will need to lose again next year so we can comply with the rules? I called for a senior Ministry within Government for the negotiations for the marine sector and he failed miserably to get that senior Ministry. It has cost us dearly. This is a great industry we have on our doorstep.
We have a task force in place at the moment. I attended the Irish South and West Fish Producers Organisation AGM on Saturday and they told me that they put many amendments forward to try to put a better system in place. They were are concerned that this task force was not allowed to take on board their amendments. What is going on out there? What is the point of a task force if nobody can have an input to try to see if they can fight for the survival of their fellow fishers? This situation also rolls on down with regard to the inshore fishermen. They certainly are feeling the pinch as well. Many of them feel they are being neglected. We have a weighing crisis at the piers that is an absolute disaster. We have SFPA that seems to protect everybody else but the Irish fishers. We now have this issue of penalty points so we can drag in our innocent fishers who work hard out there, and who might not be guilty of an infringement. A few months ago, however, when there was a ramming incident of a Castletownbere trawler by a Spanish trawler that was fishing illegally in Irish waters nobody could go out to help them. They were left there. It tells us what side of the world we are living in and tells us on what side is the Government.
The Green Party's Deputy Leddin comes in here and is delighted about it. The Deputy has not read about it and he does not understand how hard it has been for the Irish fishers. The Deputy talks about quotas. Ireland is not throwing away its quotas, they are being given to the foreign fleets who are robbing the fish out of our waters. We have allowed it continuously. I and each and every Deputy from Fianna Fail and Fine Gael and the Green Party need to stand up here today to oppose this Bill from start to finish.
I am glad to get the opportunity to talk about this very important matter. It affects issues from west Cork to Kerry, Dingle to Cahersiveen, and all the way up the west of Ireland to Donegal. Deputies Collins, Ferris and I met with the former Minister, Deputy Creed, when he was introducing the statutory instrument. He did not listen to us. Gladly, Pat the Cope Gallagher, the Minister's former fellow Deputy from County Donegal, annulled the statutory instrument but when the Taoiseach, Deputy Micheál Martin, got into power he introduced the statutory instrument again.
The way that these penalty points are being meted out is not fair. If a person contests them in the courts and proves the case he or she will not get those points removed from their licence. This legislation makes no sense because the UK vessels will not get points in Irish waters. There is no fairness in the courts system. The Killybegs Fishermen's Organisation argues that the penalty points system could remove an individual's income without that person having recourse to the courts. This is a farcical situation. The courts may say that a person is innocent but the points still remain.
The Minister is from County Donegal. Is he going to stand over what is happening here and hurting fishermen from Killybegs, all along the west coast down to Dingle and Cahersiveen and along the west coast of Cork? After all, the Minister is from a county that is very much like ours.
The weighing of fisheries products is not covered by this Bill, even though the Government knows that this has been a serious issue since new rules were introduced on 13 April last with immediate effect. In short, the difficulties arise around whether weighing can take place before or after transport, that is, at piers rather than in factories, and in the context of removing ice packaging and having to put it all back in place again. This is totally unfair. Individual weighing and repacking as part of the weighing control system and the problem resulting from this process will not result in better fish quality.
Why apply penalty points to Irish fishermen while UK fishermen fishing in Irish territorial waters are not to be tackled at all? What are the Minister and the Government doing? Can they not stand up for fair play? Rather than penalising our fishermen, why do the Minister and Government not fight for more quotas for them and give them a chance to live? It is affecting the rural communities as well as the fishermen.
It says enough about what is being proposed in the Bill that the Green Party is stating that it is quite happy with it. That should be enough about it and make what is before us totally abhorrent to the Minister. How he or anyone else in the governing parties can support this is beyond belief.
We are all here to do our best for the different sectors we represent. I cannot for the life of me understand how anybody could agree with what is before us today because it is hurting our fishermen. That is a fact. Can the Minister make a case, on the record of the Dáil, as to why this is good for our fishermen and the people I represent, regardless of whether they live on the coast of Kerry, in the west of Ireland or where he is from? I am absolutely shocked to think that of all the people in the world, the Minister could actually support this. I will listen very carefully to any argument by the Minister or anyone else in the Green Party, for example, to the effect that this is good for fishermen. Our fishermen have been downtrodden for many years and I cannot understand why. They are part of our heritage and culture. They are part of what we want to keep going and all they want to do is survive, whether they are fishing on a full-time or part-time basis.
Last weekend I met with groups of fishermen who told me about the way they are hurting so bad. These are people who have small operations. Some are even just individuals on their own going out fishing. They say that it is getting more and more difficult all the time. I cannot understand why the Minister or anybody else would want to impose something that is actually crazy. We can spend the whole day debating the intricacies of what is being proposed, whereby we could have a situation where penalty points would be applied and still stand even though they would be deemed to have been applied in the wrong in the first instance. Why do we have to treat these people like their criminals? It does not make sense. We can have fishermen coming in from other countries and what they will do is fine. Again, I-----
My time is not up. What I want to get across is this. I am standing here pleading with the Minister at this late hour to for God's sake do something to help these people to be able to make their livelihoods.
I was very glad that the Minister visited to my county recently. On a personal basis, he is a very nice gentleman, but how in the name of God did he or anyone in his Department think this was a good idea? My office is located in Agriculture House and I was delighted to see him come in as Minister. I was one of the first people to say that I wanted our new Minister to come to County Kerry. Since when did the Government bring in what I would call an extremely discourteous thing whereby the itinerary of a Minister, when he is coming into a county where other people are there to represent, is like a big secret. The Minister did the exact same thing and I did not realise that until I heard Deputy Michael Collins talking about it. The Minister might think it means nothing but, on a personal basis, it is hurtful. There have been Healy-Raes in County Kerry for a long time, and when a Minister ever came to Kerry, that Minister would always tell us what he or she was doing and were he or she was going. I know every one of the people the Minister met. I was talking to every one of them. Again, I apologise; I did not get to meet the Minister because I had scheduled clinics but, then again, how could I know what he was doing when he or his office did not tell me exactly what he was doing? It is only a matter of courtesy. Is it that the Minister does not want to meet other public representatives if he is doing a roadshow? On a personal basis, and just so the Minister realises, it is a hurtful thing to do. I thought that in politics-----
I, too, rise to wish a silent lament that former Deputy Pat The Cope Gallagher is not here. He stopped this by way of statutory instruments. The Taoiseach, Deputy Micheál Martin, who, when he in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine on an acting basis - having unceremoniously disposed of two of his Ministers - signed it only to reverse his decision. He would do anything to grovel to the Green Party. The Green Party is butchering this. How can we have a situation where the courts of the land can clear people of a charge or of anything and the penalty points will still remain? Has the Government learned nothing from the closure and loss of our sugar industry?
I am not a fishing person at all but I support my colleagues. I compliment Deputies Michael and Danny Healy-Rae and Michael Collins, who have been tirelessly representing the fishermen here. To think that the Minister did not notify them that he was going down to west Cork. The Minister was in Cahir as well and called to the mart in my hometown, but he did not even notify his colleague, Deputy Cahill. He brought a Fine Gael Senator with him. I do not know if the Minister knew the fish from the cattle or what he was doing because the press release about Castletownbere went out even before he arrived.
How patronising and insulting, and how awful for families who are being forced out of business and being expected to take compensation. It is an awful way to treat people - just give them money and get rid of this industry. We got rid of the bees. We are getting rid of our peat. There is no room for ordinary people. The plain people of Ireland cannot work, heat their houses or fish for themselves or for their livelihoods. It is to hell or to Connacht, like Cromwell had it when he came into Tipperary all those years ago. It is to hell with rural Ireland now for Fianna Fáil. I cannot believe it.
When former Deputy Mary Coughlan was Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, she involved every public representative when she visited places. She wrote a letter and said let them come if they can come. What is happening now is cloak-and-dagger stuff. I know the Minister is hiding from the people of County Donegal. He is spending a lot of time all over the country because he cannot face his own people but he is going to have to face them. They are waiting for him in the long grass. He will have to face them in the next election. Hopefully, the former Deputy, Minister, Leas-Cheann Comhairle and MEP, Pat The Cope Gallagher, will return and represent the people of County Donegal and the fishermen. He will represent the people of Donegal across the board and he will not be abandoning them like the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, is and selling his soul for 60 shillings.
I thank the Acting Chairman. I came in at the tail-end of the previous contribution, which Deputy Mattie McGrath over-personalised. I do not think that is necessary. This debate and the work of the House should be above that. We are here today to deal with important legislation that has many positive elements to it. The personal charges that are thrown across sometimes happen too often in here. When I watched Dáil Éireann as a young fellow over the years and said that this was the career I wanted to have, it was certainly not that model of politics that I-----
I will conclude that introductory remark by saying that I have the utmost respect for my colleague, Deputy Mattie McGrath. We share a corridor on which we are neighbours but I take exception to seeing personal stuff being thrown into the Chamber. It is below where we need to be in terms of the quality of debate on a particularly important matter.
This is an important Bill that provides for a number of amendments to the Sea-Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction Act, which dates back to 2006. It legislates for a points system for Irish masters of sea-fishing boats. I understand that we are the only country that does not have that system yet. It has been misrepresented over the past few days as being some kind of punitive system equated at times, perhaps, to what happens when a person commits an offence when driving a car.
This is quite a different system and needs to be seen for what it is. What I really want to say is that for all the good this Bill does and which we should all support, it is important to have a more broadened debate about the fishing industry. It is an industry in County Clare and an employer in parts of our county, such as Doonbeg and along the coast. It is, of course, much bigger in the Minister's constituency and even bigger again, when one goes down along the coast towards Castletownbere and some of those harbours in County Cork. What I have been hearing time and time again and what I saw first hand only a few months ago when I had an hour or so free time, boarded trawlers docked outside the convention centre in protest and met trawlermen from Clare, Cork, Kerry, Donegal, Mayo and along the western seaboard, was that one after one they told me how difficult it is for them to survive.
I cannot remember the name of the app they asked me to follow but it is similar to flight radar. There is a phone app by which one can cast an eye over the Irish Sea or the Atlantic and see what vessels are at sea. They asked me to monitor it over one or two weeks and I did. What I could see off our coast were fleets of Spanish vessels time and time again. I am not an expert on the jurisdiction of waters, but I was also told by some people working in Shannon Airport that there was an offshore Spanish hospital ship out in the Atlantic at one point. Given there were so many trawlers from the Spanish fleet out there, they had a hospital ship out at sea to service that large crew of people on board trawlers.
We need to look at the regulatory regime under which we fall. We are in a large European bloc. It seems illogical at times that our fishing industry is struggling when Spanish and other Mediterranean fishing industries seem to be booming. I support this legislation, but there is a need for a wider dialogue on supporting our fisheries. It is close to the heart of the Minister, Deputy McConalogue. Despite what some have tried to insinuate here today, he has at all times not hidden from the fishing industry or any other industry that his Department represents. He is engaging with them and there needs to be more and deeper engagement to support him.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Bill. County Wexford has a strong maritime tradition, a strong fishing community and a strong sense of justice, stemming from our proud history of resistance to colonialism and oppressive laws. It is no surprise that this Bill is not welcome in County Wexford or throughout all coastal communities on this island and despite the Government being informed by all major stakeholders in the fishing industry that this law is bad. The fishing industry now faces major issues from Brexit and the loss of 15% of our quotas. This industry is just about surviving. This Bill has many faults. It is imperative to apply the law of the land as in a manner equal to the law of the sea. However, this is not the case. The law of the land states one is innocent until proven guilty, but this Bill is contrary to that sacred principle, because it holds the legal threshold of the balance of probabilities over the principle of reasonable doubt. Another major flaw in this Bill is that penalty points remain on the licence, even when the accused has successfully appealed to the courts. We are calling for this legislation to be redrafted. We need a complete renegotiation of the Common Fisheries Policy that would rebuild the valuable Irish fishing industry, which contributes millions of euro to the Irish economy every year and employs thousands of people.
I am sharing time with Deputy Connolly. I start off by referencing some of the other speakers. I am not aware of any notification having come forward of the Minister's visits to the ports. I could be wrong but I am not sure that they have. There could be something wrong with the communication in the Minister's Department, because I am not aware of an invitation having come forward. I just checked with my office and there was not one. The other Members are right in what they have said about being notified. We need to address that.
It is always interesting that when the news will be bad, the invitations will be widened out. Everybody else will see this with regard to mica, which is not related to this Bill, in that we get invited when there will be bad news in order that it is deflected. If it will be good news or something else, only the Government will be invited. Looking at the contribution yesterday by the Minister of State, Deputy Heydon, he talked about the need for this Bill. There is no need for it. The Bill is fatally flawed, because it does not provide proper outlets for people who have a problem with it, to go to the courts and have their cases met there. This Bill will end up in the courts after it is passed. This Bill will be passed because the Minister has numbers and it will probably end up in the courts to see where the provisions are proper and right. That is, unfortunately, fair enough, because this House, by proportion of numbers, cannot do it anyway.
A Bill that provides further on the balance of probabilities for something to take place is grand and would be if it were only this administrative procedure taking place, but a criminal procedure also runs alongside this. The mixture of legal positions that we have is probably unique in European terms and maybe that should be dealt with. Perhaps if it was all administrative functions, that might be more acceptable to the industry. There is no doubt the industry is going through a difficult period at the minute of which this Bill is symbolic.
I take issue with some of the previous speakers saying that former Deputy Pat the Cope Gallagher stopped this when he was in opposition. That is right. It did. That motion put forward was supported by all the Members, but the key part of that was "when he was in opposition", because I am sure that when Fianna Fáil went into government, it would have been implemented anyway, whether Pat The Cope was here or not. That is the reality of the situation. It is easier to stop things when one is in opposition and then one goes into government and does the exact opposite. We have seen that too often, across the board, in this Parliament, to know it will be any different. While I have much respect for Pat the Cope Gallagher and the work he did in this House, it would have made a difference when he went back into government, because this system would have been implemented regardless.
When the Minister of State spoke about the Bill, he said that serious financial implications arise from the non-implementation of the points system. He went on to say that approximately €24 million, to date, has been lost because of this and that will reach €37 million in 2022. That does not represent serious financial implications. There is no doubt that €24 million and €37 million are significant sums of money. It is a lot of money to any individual in the country, but when the State is talking in tens of billions of euro, as we do for everything, it is not a huge amount of money, nor is it a justification to say we should be doing that because we are losing out on this money. We should be doing it because it is the right thing to do. The Government has agreed it is the right thing to do because it has agreed all this with Europe and it will implement anyway. I do not agree with the outline that the Bill has to be passed and that it will be open to challenge.
The system is unfair. It will be difficult for masters of vessels to manage and it will be interesting to see how it will be implemented, because that will be the crux of it. Many fishermen will be looking to see how the implementation of this will take place and whether it will be done in a fair way. The experience, rightly or wrongly, of many fishermen has been that the Government does not work with them, it works against them, in terms of how they go about their business. That may be wrong but that is the experience and it cannot be discounted, in that they feel that way when dealing with the Government. That is vitally important.
There is no doubt that fishing is and has been at a difficult stage, with Brexit and the implementation of these penalty points. Fishing has always been at a difficult stage. It has always been put on the back burner and left there. For many years, fishermen developed the fishing industry and worked on, in spite of Government policy, rather than because of it, or working with it. If this will be dealt with and if fishing will be put on a sustainable footing into the future, the only way is a complete and utter review of the Common Fisheries Policy.
The Irish Government, whether it is one with a Fianna Fáil Minister, a Fine Gael Minister, a Sinn Féin Minister or whoever is there in the future, is going to have to accept that wrongs have been done going back to the early 1980s. In fact, before we even joined the EU the wrongs had started. The European Union made the conservation of fishing stocks the sole responsibility of the European Commission while our negotiations were taking place. At the time it was the only item that was the sole responsibility of the European Commission. Why was that? It was because Europe was fully aware of what we were bringing to the table and we were not. That is the reality of the situation. We were not aware for a number of different reasons, namely, because the Government was not up to speed on it and because fishermen were not talking to the Government and letting the Government know. Anecdotally, I have heard that the Government would not believe fishermen when they said what they could catch and it reduced that number when it went to Europe to negotiate the Common Fisheries Policy, whereas in France, the French Government increased what the fishermen told it they could catch so they ended up with a bigger total allowable catch.
From that point on we have had a problem and it is coming to a head now. It is coming to the point where there is no more road. No more change can take place and there are no more ways that the emissaries or the Government can turn a blind eye and allow things to happen. There has to be a recognition that the fishing industry has been shafted by Europe and by lack of Government response and support for it over the years. It is not any one Government's fault or any one individual's fault; it is just the fault of the whole system, which has worked against the fishermen. If we are going to put this industry on a sustainable footing we need that acceptance and we need the Government to go out to Brussels and Europe and fight on behalf of the fishing industry, rather than this charade of going out before Christmas every year and coming back with less again and dressing it up as being a success. We have to go out and change the balance of how things are decided so we do not have to do this every year, so the Government is not always fighting for Hague principles and stuff like that to make sure they are in place and maintained. That is the only option for the fishing industry. If we do not do that, unfortunately it is going to continue to decline. It will decline and decline in Killybegs and Greencastle. Burtonport is wiped out already anyway. Right along the coast it is all going to decline and coastal communities will not be able to survive. That will be very detrimental for the whole country. This Dublin-centric development that has always been there is just going to increase and go further and further if the Government allows it to happen. That is sadly what the Government seems to have been prepared to allow to happen. We need to stop that and the only way we can do that is by the Government saying that it has to stop. It must fight in Europe to make sure these things change, stand up and fight properly by saying it is unacceptable and that we want this change and are going to demand it. Then things will come back. Everybody in this House will stand behind the Government and support it in making those changes properly. That is vitally important.
It is symptomatic of the problems that exist that there has been so much resistance to this legislation. This legislation is flawed and it needs to be rehashed and looked at again. There has to be an option for people to have a fall-back and go to the courts if they are not happy. It will cost them a lot of money and they will probably have to fight this again in the courts when it gets through these Houses. That will be very detrimental and will be a retrograde step if that is the case. The Government has had a poor approach to dealing with these issues. The Minister and the Government have let down Donegal farmers and fishermen. Hopefully we will not be let down with regard to the mica situation in the weeks to come but I would not hold out much hope. We have an opportunity now in relation to fishing. If we can do this over the next couple of years we can work together to make this happen Unfortunately, I do not think the political will is there on the Government's side to make that happen.
Táim sásta páirt a ghlacadh sa díospóireacht seo. Tá an t-ábhar seo thar a bheith tábhachtach d'iascairí na tíre. Aontaím le mo chomhghleacaí go bhfuil neamhaird agus dochar déanta don earnáil de réir polasaithe leanúnacha ó na Rialtais éagsúla. I agree with the my colleague's comments about the fishing industry and how Ireland has completely and utterly lost out with the Common Fisheries Policy. I do not have the time to go into that today except to say on the record that I agree with him.
I want to look at what is before us. I have taken the trouble to read the Bill. I will preface my remarks by saying I am no expert in this area but I have done my best to get my head around what is happening here. The Bill has 15 sections. It is very late coming and we are in trouble with the EU again so it is withholding money. The Minister might clarify that. I see a reference to money being withheld. Does that mean that if we are good boys in the class we will get that money back, or is that money lost? The word "withheld" was used. The EU has sent us a reasoned opinion telling us we have no choice but to act and this is the action we have taken. The action is definitely faulty and I will come back to why that is. The Commission decided to send a reasoned opinion to Ireland over its failure to fulfil its obligations under the 2009 directive. It states, "Specifically, Ireland has failed to comply with European Union rules on establishing a point system for fisheries-related serious infringements committed by masters and licence holders of vessels flying the flag of Ireland." The Minister might come back to that point about "masters and licence holders". It goes on to say, interestingly, that Ireland has "also failed to put into operation the current national legislation [which is the 2006 Act] implementing the point system for licence holders." Let me try to simplify that for myself. We are bringing in a new points system for skippers parallel to a points system that was brought in in 2006 for licence holders, although it seems that due to a typo or an error in the legislation that system was never implemented. Perhaps the Minister might clarify that for me. I would have thought we would have learned from the existing points system and reviewed it and checked it to see what were the good points and bad points before rolling out another points system. Is the current licence system and the points system for licence holders of boats that was brought in in 2006 in operation, or is my understanding correct?
I thank the Library and Research Service once again for producing a Bills digest under pressure. I think they are great. Most of the amendments are technical ones, according to page 7 of the library's digest. It states, "The most significant proposed amendment relates to Section 28 of the 2006 Act which deals with penalties for certain indictable fishery offences. The amendment is intended to address a typographical error in this Section which effectively means that there is currently no way to prosecute anybody detected fishing without a valid Sea-fishing Boat Licence." I ask the Minister to come back to that. It is not that I want to be a voice for prosecutions but I want to know about that parallel system that has been in place since 2006. It is now 2021 and we are now correcting a typo. We all make errors; I have no difficulty with that. However, I do have a difficulty with the length of time it has taken to correct a typo, and not learning from it or explaining to us today what the consequences of that typo were. Is there a points system in place or is there not? It is unforgivable that that has not been explained to us today. I ask the Minister to please explain it in his wrap-up.
We are introducing a points system for skippers and as well as having a civil side giving them points if there is a serious infringement, there is also a criminal side. I am not sure why we need both. I would appreciate if the Minister could clarify that. What seriously troubles me is that we are going to doubly punish the skipper. We are going to give the skipper points then we are going to prosecute him or her. However, if that prosecution fails and the person is found innocent they are still left with the points. None of that makes sense. If somebody could explain that to me I would be delighted to try to explain it to the fishermen on the ground. That is something I am able to do when I grasp an issue but I cannot grasp this so I cannot explain it except to say it is absolutely contradictory, unfair and unacceptable. That is a major problem for me.
This is a short Bill with 15 sections. However, there is a major role here for the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority. I took the trouble of looking at the final report, Review of the Organisational Capability of the Sea- Fisheries Protection Authority, from April 2020. It highlights the most serious issues and has six core themes: strategic management; organisational structure and design; internal structures and staffing arrangements; industrial relation working environment and processes; earning and development; and internal and external communications.
The headquarters is in Clonakilty. I am told there is no connection, rapport or communication between Clonakilty and the ports. I am putting this into my own words but there is a clear gap between Clonakilty and the ports. The report, dated April 2020, states, "the SFPA is not working effectively and requires urgent attention" and "Relationships and trust have been impacted". There were long-standing industrial relations issues. which were identified as early as 2009 in a report on the analysis of the employee opinion survey of the SFPA carried out by Joe Wolfe & Associates. The SFPA report states the organisation "needs to be reset and unified with a clear and agreed articulation of its mandate"; "needs to focus ... on its primary functions"; "needs a clear focus on an accepted vision and core mission, with agreed objectives"; and needs "a clear and accepted framework of responsibility, accountability, behaviours and authority in order to drive management effectiveness". There are three more pages and I have three minutes. I will not use my remaining time on it all. The report states "An Oversight Group will be needed to oversee delivery, supported by Portfolio Management Approach" - it includes all these lovely words of the 21st century - and that the SFPA is consistently not meeting targets across fisheries control and seafood safety.
I will be precise and will use the wording straight from the report. It states "the SFPA lacks cohesiveness and there is a fundamental disconnect between the port offices and management in HQ". That is the summary, in my words, of the report which is a damning indictment of the situation in regard to the authority. I lay blame on nobody; I am simply highlighting the report in order to say there is something seriously wrong here. There will now be a penalty point system administered by that authority, while no action has been taken in resolving the problems in that authority.
This Bill was sent to the committee. It wrote to the Minister on 21 June 2021 - many Members have pointed this out already - highlighting four bullet points which were crystal clear, focused and to the point. None of those points have been addressed in the Bill. In highlighting them again, they include a standard of proof on the balance of probabilities. I understand the use of the balance of proof because "beyond reasonable doubt" is used in the courts. I ask that the other systems are explained to me. I would have thought the 2006 system would have been the best one to look at. However, I could not look at it because it seems it never came into operation.
I wish to raise the weighing issue and the debacle over the action taken by the EU. It is the EU's right to do an audit and highlight the problems. However, when the consequences of the sins of the few are visited on the many, it is most unjust. A decision was made to stop the weighing of fish in the manner that was previously allowed whereby it was done in the factory. Weighing must now be done on the quayside, which is extremely difficult throughout Connemara, Ros an Mhíl, and Carna, and where they land fish. The EU was unjust in making that unilateral decision in that manner. It should have been more nuanced.
There were two other points highlighted by the cross-party committee, that was completely ignored, including inconsistencies. It highlighted there should be no inconsistency of penalty points to EU and non-EU vessels, particularly in the context of Brexit and England. The final point, which I have focused on, the joint committee calls on the Minister to support and resource the implementations of the recommendations of the report by the accountants. Having considered all that, I would have expected a Minister - it is difficult not to lose hope sometimes but democracy is difficulty and we have a duty to make it work - to explain the problems with the 2006 Act. Why was it not operational? Was there a points system? Was this parallel with it? Where are we going with it? We should not build an arbitrariness into this Bill or an unjust system that we cannot stand over.
The main purpose of this legislation is to enshrine European regulations into Irish law. The Irish fishing community must shudder with dread when it hears the phrase "new EU regulations". There have been many EU regulations placed on the fishing community and very rarely have they been introduced with the intention of making it easier to make a living from fishing.
The first thing to catch my eye in this Bill was the Irish fishing master register. The Bill contains details of all the information to be kept on each registered owner. It only allows for registration when the person is an Irish citizen and has fewer than 90 penalty points. It is, of course, welcome that we will have a registration system that does not allow foreign rogue traders or serial offenders, but what about those who will be required to register as skippers on work permits? Like many sectors at this time, there is a difficulty in sourcing staff of all kinds. We must not limit their availability to recruit on a work-visa basis when there is no one in Ireland who is available or who wants the job. The Bill also requires the master to furnish the Minister with such information as he or she may reasonably require and it will be up to the Minister to specify the format of applications. I urge the Minister in this regard, if this Bill passes, such information required will be kept to only the information that is absolutely necessary. I would not like to see a situation where honourable and genuine people are made to jump through unnecessary bureaucratic hoops in order to become a registered master or where they turn away from the prospect of registering if it becomes too onerous in nature and more about the paperwork than the master's ability. I hope the form and manner of the application process will be made user friendly, and multiple options, including online and traditional application methods, will be provided as this is a problem in many other sectors, not least the heavy goods vehicle driver licence sector.
In broad terms, I fundamentally support the idea that we need controls over those allowed to operate with a fishing licence in our waters. However, there are points in this Bill - many of my colleagues have raised them today - that are causing my fishing constituents great concern. I draw Members' attention to the section entitled "Assignment of points by Authority". When an infringement occurs, the Bill makes a distinction between how an Irish citizen should be treated as compared with a citizen of another EU member state. It states:
(a) in a case where the master concerned is an Irish citizen, notify the master in writing— (i) of it having been so notified, and
(ii) of the proposal to assign the appropriate points in accordance with Annex XXX to the Commission Regulation to the master for the serious infringement, (b) in a case where the master concerned is a national of another Member State, notify the master— (i) of it having been so notified, and
ii) that it is proposed to notify the competent authority of the Member State of which the master is a national of the detection of the serious infringement.
The Minister will see immediately that a non-level playing field will exist if this Bill is passed in its present format. An Irish citizen who commits an infringement in Irish waters will have penalty points applied by the Irish authorities. However, if a foreign master commits an infringement in Irish waters, he or she will not have penalty points applied by the Irish authorities. All we can do is notify the authority in the foreign master's country of origin. What mechanism will be used and how proportionate will the policing of foreign fishing boats be compared to Irish boats? We should have the authority to police our own waters as we see fit, rather than only being able to refer offences to other jurisdictions. It should not just be referred to the police force of the country of origin, offences committed in our waters or on our lands should be dealt with here. It should be the case in all matters. This is a fundamental issue. If this Bill passes, we will not have a level playing field as I have stated. We will not have the right to police our waters and we will not have the right to punish offenders in our waters. This is a very concerning state of affairs and I will not support it.
The Bill highlights the different levels of suspensions based on the number of penalty points accumulated. I wish to reiterate that I have no problem with Irish rule breakers facing sanctions. However, we could have a situation where foreign registered vessels that continually break the rules will continue to fish in our waters because we have no powers to deal with them. That is not proportionate. If the authority in the country of origin does not take action or is not a zealous as our own authority, the SFPA, or as it should be, we will have a two-tier system of regulation.
That cannot be tolerated. We must be able to penalise any vessels fishing in our waters.
I want to put a question to all my colleagues in the House who claim to represent fishing communities. Would they feel comfortable visiting their local quayside and explaining to the hard-working fishermen there that the Irish authorities have no power to penalise foreign vessels engaged in misbehaviour in our waters? Those fishers watch every day as SFPA staff board Irish vessels but leave alone the foreign-registered boats that unload beside them on the quay. It is totally demoralising for Irish fishers to see the Irish enforcement agency coming down on them while foreign boats go unnoticed. If colleagues would feel uncomfortable breaking that news, recognising that it clearly creates an unlevel playing field, then they must surely vote against this Bill as it currently stands. For Deputies who do not represent fishing communities or are not familiar with the fishing industry, I will use an analogy. Would they feel comfortable visiting a victim of a burglary and explaining to the distraught homeowner that even though gardaí know who the culprits are, they cannot punish those culprits because they are not Irish citizens? Homeowners would not accept that. Ordinary, everyday, hard-working people would not accept it. Fishermen, likewise, should not be forced to accept this Bill.
There has been much said about the Minister's visits to various places. I was invited to attend when he visited Wexford, but I have been left out of other Ministers' trips to the county. I entirely understand the feelings of my fellow Deputies in that regard. When a ministerial visit is happening in a county, every Deputy in the constituency should be invited. I appreciate that the fact this does not happen may have absolutely nothing to do with the Minister, Deputy McConalogue. However, I have spent some time in the House this morning trying to make public services and public servants accountable. The Minister has had his own personal debacle, where a press release detailing what happened during a visit was issued prior to the visit. I am sure he well understands the ridiculousness of something like that happening.
The fishermen and fisherwomen he met in Kilmore were very appreciative of his visit. He gave them more than two hours of his time. I am aware, indeed, that the visit did not come to a halt until 10 o'clock that night and the Minister was left looking for somewhere to eat. I know his job is not easy; nor is mine. We are all well-paid for what we do but that does not make it easy. However, I can say with certainty that the fisherman's job is extremely difficult. It is done in all weathers, facing all dangers, away from family and often onboard small or cramped vessels where fishers are mixing, working and living with people for days at a time. They must reap a reward for that because of the reward they bring to us. As I said last week in the debate on the Maritime Area Planning Bill, they feed us and they make our coastal communities what they are. We have renowned fish restaurants in this country. For a county of its size, Ireland has a tourism industry in which counties like Donegal and Wexford can equally share because we have such good restaurants. We are able to provide wholesome, tasty food from our natural resources. The Minister knows this is the case, as do I, because we are from fishing counties.
I know there are certain measures being brought upon us by the EU with which he does not agree. I do not agree with them and I do not think they should be forced upon us. At some point, we will have to renegotiate them, whether as part of a new Common Fisheries Policies, which I hope is imminent, or otherwise. We certainly must start to recognise the importance of our natural resources. We may have a small number of fishermen but their activity expands into a much wider community. They make possible the provision of fresh fish from our waters into our restaurants, thereby supporting the hospitality and tourism sector, which is massive. That is the community in which I live. I may be a long way from Gorey but although there is no fishing community there, that town certainly bears the fruits of the fish that come out of our waters and into its restaurants. It is the same in Donegal and every other county. I do not want to see our fishing industry denigrated by the EU because it thinks it is creating a level playing field. It is not doing so. Everything that is happening today, particularly in regard to fisheries, is having an impact. We must get on with developing our wind farm sector and that will also have an impact.
Unfortunately, I must take this opportunity to raise a more localised issue. During his visit, I introduced the Minister to Captain Phil Murphy, who works on behalf of Wexford County Council looking after the county's harbours. When I asked what was happening in terms of a health and safety audit of the harbour in Duncannon, I was told nothing has happened. It is as if it was never requested. I have met four times with the fishermen in Duncannon. They are very busy men whose schedule does not lend itself to having mass meetings of all the fishermen with officials, let alone Deputies. We compiled a list of things that are required to be done in the harbour on a health and safety basis. I have twice emailed the Minister and his Department detailing accidents that have involved near-death experiences for jet-skiers. Fortunately, the jet-skiers were saved in both incidents but there could easily have been two fatalities. Not a thing has been done and the issue has not been addressed in any manner. I have seen an email from the harbour master to a representative of the fishermen telling them that some moneys that were provided by the Department are at risk of being lost because the fishermen have not turned up to a meeting. I will take this matter up with the Minister after this debate. I do not want to have to raise issues like this on the floor of the Dáil but, unfortunately, it seems to be the only way we can get our public servants to do what is required of them by fishermen at a local level. What we are discussing here today, involving EU legislation, is probably beyond the powers of what is need in these matters. We need to be able to look after our fishers and compensate them where we can at local level.
I thank Deputies for their many and varied contributions on Second Stage of the Bill. In the main, they have a strong understanding of, and commitment to, the need for a timely introduction and implementation of an effective, proportionate and dissuasive points system for masters of fishing vessels. This is an important measure to support a level playing field on control and to support sustainable fishing in compliance with the rules in the waters around Ireland on which our fishing fleet is strongly dependent. As Deputies know, fishing industry representatives raised certain concerns about SI 318/2020, relating to the licence holders' points system, when it was signed into force in August 2020. It is understandable that those concerns would arise again in light of the similarity between the procedures adopted under that statutory instrument and those proposed in the Bill.
A number of Deputies raised concerns this evening, as well as in the context of pre-legislative scrutiny, about the standard of proof to be used by the determination panel and the appeals officer, which will be based on the balance of probabilities. The legal standard of beyond a reasonable doubt is almost entirely confined to criminal trials and is not applicable to proceedings of a civil nature, where the standard used is the balance of probabilities. The latter is the standard to be used for the points system and the legal position is that it is the appropriate legal standard. Furthermore, the legal position is that the Supreme Court did not, in either the Crayden or O'Sullivan cases, in which a forerunner to SI 318/2020 was challenged successfully, make a single reference to beyond a reasonable doubt. That was not part of either judgment. The Supreme Court had no issue with the balance of probabilities standard of proof in any of the statutory instruments it considered.
Thus, there is no support in the Supreme Court judgments for the proposition that the "balance of probabilities" standard of proof should be raised to the criminal standard of "beyond a reasonable doubt".
Regarding points being removed following a not-guilty finding in the courts, the issue of points being removed where the master is found not guilty in criminal proceedings in respect of the infringement has been raised, both here and at pre-legislative scrutiny stage. This proposal would involve both systems being interlinked, and they would not stand alone from each other, that is, the criminal approach and the administrative approach, which is the one the penalty points is based on. There are separate systems involving separate standards of proof between the points and a criminal prosecution. It would lead to the confusion and conflation of evidence and render elements inadmissible. In addition, the legal position is that points under EU regulation are intended as additional to a criminal prosecution. Accordingly, it could not be argued that Ireland has both a criminal and points system, as required under EU regulation, if we operated the system in a manner whereby the criminal proceedings completely eclipsed the points system. This is something that has been given a lot of consideration at all stages, not just now but in the course of preparing the penalty points' statutory instrument concerning the owners of a ship. The matter has been teased out in great detail. Were we to do that, it would simply not be possible for us to become compliant with the EU regulation.
It has also been suggested by a number of Deputies in this and previous debates that the master should have a right to a full re-hearing of the case before the High Court. The legal position is that under the Constitution, the High Court has "full original jurisdiction" and can hear all matters of law brought before it. The legal position further is that it would be highly anomalous, if not unprecedented, to provide such a full High Court re-hearing of a matter first governed by the procedures which were set down in the 2020 statutory instrument for licenceholders and in the Bill for masters. In addition, it would delay the application of points, which would run up against the timeline set down in the EU regulation, whereby points apply for three years, with the commencement date being the date of detection. To that extent, it would hinder the effective implementation of this EU law and would not meet Ireland's obligations to implement the EU provisions. Again, were we to do that, we would not be bringing ourselves into compliance, as is the requirement on us under EU regulation and law. We are the sole member state within the Common Fisheries Policy not to have yet applied this.
The High Court retains a supervisory and review capacity which provides for an appeal on a point of law to the High Court, which is entirely in keeping with statutory review and appeal procedures of this nature. Accordingly, the legal position is that while the High Court retains the constitutional authority to enjoy full original jurisdiction over any legal proceedings, this authority has been circumscribed by the specific appeals mechanisms set down in primary and secondary legislation, which overwhelmingly limit High Court appeals to reviews on a point of law.
I wish to address a claim made by the Opposition yesterday on Second Stage to the effect that if a master successfully appeals to the High Court on a point of law, then points would nevertheless remain assigned to him or her. A number of Deputies reiterated the point again today. It is something I have corrected on numerous occasions but people choose not to take on board and absorb the points I have made in that regard. To be clear, that is not correct. The legal position is that if a High Court challenge is successful on a point of law, then the court may make the appropriate order quashing any earlier decision to assign points. This is entirely independent of the separate provision in the Bill that points assigned to a master remain assigned regardless of any criminal proceedings pending, or the outcome of any such proceedings, in respect of the serious infringement concerned.
I will further tease out the points-on-conviction model. Fishing industry representatives point out that, prior to Brexit, the United Kingdom operated a system for its licenceholders whereby points would only be applied following a conviction in the courts for the serious infringement concerned. It has been queried why this model could not be adopted in Ireland for the masters' points system. The Supreme Court delivered its judgments on SI 3/2014 in December 2017. Those judgments found in favour of the State's position that for licenceholders, it is permissible to have a stand-alone points system separate to a prosecution through the courts and that it is permissible to provide for a stand-alone system pursuant to a statutory instrument.
The Supreme Court judgment makes it clear that one of the obvious purposes behind the EU regulations is to ensure that the system of sanctions and dissuasive measures designed to disincentivise illegal fishing is that the system should operate efficiently and without undue delay. It is also clear from the judgment that the court understands that criminal prosecutions could take at least two years, making the points for licenceholders ineffective in many cases because they lapse three years after detection. The legal position is that it is not possible to deliver on an effective and dissuasive points system by assigning points upon successful prosecution. For instance, a delay in the prosecution of an offence could render the assignment of points meaningless, as points must be backdated to commence on the date of detection of the serious infringement and expire three years after that date. We all know from observing the weekly situation in the courts about the time cases can take. That would simply be ineffective and would not be workable. Neither would we be in compliance with the EU regulations.
Whereas the Supreme Court judgments related to the licenceholders' system, it is considered that the court's analysis applied equally in the context of the masters' points system provided for in the Bill, given the intention therein to replicate the existing licenceholders' system insofar as possible or necessary, including in relation to the lapse of points three years after detection.
Other amendments to SI 318/2020 on licenceholders' points were previously proposed by the industry. In addition to the above main issues, which I have just outlined, the industry also raised previously the following proposed amendments in the context of the statutory instrument on licenceholders' points. The first proposed amendment is that the Attorney General should establish and regulate the determination panel and that members of the determination panel be removed or resign by or via the Attorney General's office. The attribution of points for serious infringements, as required under the EU regulations, is an operational issue. The Attorney General's constitutional role as the Government's legal adviser is incompatible with this suggestion. Accordingly, it was not possible to accept the suggestion.
A second concern raised in respect of the proposal is that if the Attorney General were to establish the determination panel, he would be discharging just part of the duties set out at Article 125(a) of Commission Implementing Regulation No. 404/2011, namely, the setting up of the system for the attribution of points under Article 92 of the control regulation. Noting that SI 318/2020 has left the Minister as the body who appoints the appeals officer, the legal position is that the proposed amendment effectively subdivides the responsibilities set out at Article 125(a), a course not congruent with the text of that article. The legal position is that the Attorney General would have to set up the entire points system if he is to set up or regulate the determination panel.
Next, I wish to touch on the proposed amendment that the Minister, as opposed to the SFPA, appoints the determination panel. SI 318/2020 provides for the establishment by the SFPA of a determination panel comprised of three independent legal professionals, nominated by the Attorney General, to determine if, on the balance of probabilities, a serious infringement of the rules of the Common Fisheries Policy occurred. The SFPA only makes an appointment of named legal professionals nominated by the Attorney General's office. It has no role whatsoever in the nomination process.
The legal position is that it would not be advisable to permit the Minister, rather than the SFPA, to appoint the determination panel.
A further proposal is to add the wording "and not minor in nature giving due regard to all the facts of the case", and this was another amendment considered. This suggestion is in regard to the appeals officer confirming that the points shall be assigned where he or she considers that the alleged serious infringement involved an infringement that was serious. The serious infringement referred to is already defined in the 2020 statutory instrument. The legal position is that this amendment confuses EU law and Irish law, as well as civil law and criminal law, and the difference between "serious" and "non-minor" offences in Irish law. The two standards referred to are entirely different and the amendment serves only to confuse the issue. Accordingly, this proposal was not accepted in the context of SI 318/2020 as regards the licence holders points system.
Two amendments which were accepted and incorporated into the licence holders points system and the Bill are as follows. The first is an oral hearing in all circumstances at both determination panel stage and appeal stage. SI 318/2020 and the Bill provide that an oral hearing must be granted if the applicant so wishes at both the determination panel and appeals officer stages. The second is proposals to increase certain timescales in SI 89/2018, for example, that the licence holder be given 30 working days, as distinct from ten previously, to make submissions to the determination panel; and that an application to the High Court shall be made no later than 28 working days, as distinct from 14 days, after relevant notification. SI 318/2020 and the Bill provide that the licence holder shall have the opportunity to make submissions in writing to the determination panel and the appeals officer within 30 working days from the date of the relevant notification.
I now turn to the application of points to third country vessels. Fishing industry representatives have also expressed concern regarding the non-application of points to third country vessels, which of course now includes UK vessels post-Brexit. This issue also arose at pre-legislative scrutiny stage and was mentioned by Deputies in the debate on Second Stage. The Bill provides that an official can prepare a report regarding an alleged serious infringement involving a foreign sea fishing boat in the exclusive fishery limits of the State or an Irish sea fishing boat, wherever it may be. The person who is alleged to be the master of the boat concerned must be an Irish citizen or a national of another member state, so points cannot be assigned to a third country master, for example, a UK master, notwithstanding the fact that third country vessels do fish in the exclusive fishery limits of the State. This is because the masters points system is an EU scheme deriving exclusively from EU law and so can only apply to masters who are Irish citizens or a national of another member state. It is not open to the Minister to make the EU masters points system applicable to third country masters.
I will now touch on other issues raised at pre-legislative scrutiny stage at the joint Oireachtas committee. The first point is the joint committee call to support and resource the implementation of the recommendations of the PwC review of the organisational capacity of the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority, SFPA. The committee's view was that it is imperative that penalty points for masters of vessels are applied in the context of a robust and fair system of fisheries controls, and that the lack of capacity at present within the SFPA must not have the effect of constraining the activities of the fisheries sector. In response, I note the SFPA is implementing the recommendations of an independent review of the organisational capability of the SFPA carried out in 2019 and completed by PwC. The principal objective of the review was to contribute to the ongoing and future development of the SFPA. The review concentrates on the organisational capabilities of the SFPA to deliver on its mission for the effective and fair regulation of the sea fishing and seafood sectors that fall within its mandate. As Minister, I am satisfied that the SFPA is committed to delivering on the recommendations of the review report which, when implemented, will address issues identified to improve the effectiveness of the organisation. Responsibility for implementation of the recommendations rests with the SFPA, which is an independent agency as set down in the 2006 Act.
To conclude, this Bill is necessary to protect law-abiding operators, who make up the vast majority of those in the industry, and to preserve this precious and valuable resource for all Irish fishermen and for future generations. I am confident that the new points system provided for under the Bill will play a vital role in delivering on the Common Fisheries Policy objective of ensuring proportionate, effective and dissuasive penalties for serious infringements and contributing to a level playing field in fisheries control across member states. The points system is necessary as an effective measure against the small number of operators, either foreign or Irish, who break the rules. It is necessary to protect law-abiding operators and preserve fish stocks. I have no doubt that all sides of the House will appreciate this Bill is a vital piece of legislation which requires full scrutiny in its passage through the Oireachtas. Accordingly, I am grateful to Deputies for their thoughtful and considered contributions on Second Stage yesterday and today. I look forward to a more detailed scrutiny of the provisions of the Bill on Committee stage in the near future.