Seanad debates

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

4:00 pm

Photo of Donie CassidyDonie Cassidy (Fianna Fail)
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I move:

That Seanad Eireann approves the following Order in draft:

Regional Fisheries Boards (Postponement of Elections) Order 2008,

copies of which were laid before Seanad Éireann on 25th November, 2008.

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin South, Green Party)
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I welcome the opportunity to outline to the House the rationale behind the motion. Responsibility for the management and development of the inland fisheries sector resides with the Central Fisheries Board and the seven regional boards. Members will be aware that elections to the regional fisheries boards are due to take place on 16 December following an extension agreed by the Oireachtas last year. However, I propose, subject to the approval of the Dáil and Seanad, to make an order postponing the elections for a further year. I am making this proposition with the very real prospect of having a restructured streamlined alternative in place for the inland fisheries service during 2009. The latter will be delivered in the context of the Government's rationalisation of State agencies in general. In 2005, on foot of an independent review of the inland fisheries sector, my predecessor announced plans for significant restructuring of the sector. However, due to the complexity of the legislation required to implement the proposals and competing priorities, it did not prove possible to introduce the required legislation within the original timeframe envisaged.

In seeking sanction to postpone the elections in 2007 I advised of a new initiative being undertaken by the boards of the inland fisheries sector in respect of the proposed restructuring of the sector. This was to be developed in detail during 2008. Representatives of the Central Fisheries Board and the regional boards worked with officials of the Department in developing these proposals in the early part of this year. My consideration of the finalised proposals was, however, overtaken by the review of the Department of Finance of State bodies announced in July. As the House will be aware, on foot of that review, the Minister for Finance announced in budget 2009 that the Government had decided to reduce the number of State bodies and agencies by 41. As part of this rationalisation process, a new national inland fisheries body is to be established to replace the existing Central Fisheries Board and the seven regional boards. The eight existing trout and coarse fisheries co-operative societies will also be affected under these restructuring proposals. This decision has superseded all other proposals under consideration for the future of the sector and will be implemented without delay. A deadline of August 2009 has been set for vesting day of the new organisation. A small group, chaired by my Department and with representatives of the existing boards, has been established to guide implementation of the decision. This group is developing the key features of the new model and has advised on the legislative provisions required to deliver the new regime. It will also devise appropriate transitional arrangements in order to ensure the smooth changeover to the new structures next year.

While the proposal involves the creation of a single national authority, I must stress that the Government is committed to maintaining a strong regional input into the management of inland fisheries. Amending legislation will be required to give effect to the new structures and the Department is well advanced in the process of drawing up the draft scheme of a Bill. It is hoped this will be submitted to the Government for approval in the coming weeks.

Outside of providing the legislation necessary to facilitate the new structures, a separate examination is also being undertaken of how the existing 17 items of legislation governing the inland fisheries sector which date back to 1959 can be modernised and consolidated into a single statute. I hope to be in a position to bring forward proposals for legislation in this regard late next year. In the interim, the focused effort of the Department will be on the legislation enabling the establishment of the new inland fisheries authority.

I recognise the valuable contribution made by the members of the existing boards to the inland fisheries in their regions. I am anxious that they be given an opportunity to maintain that important role, not only in ensuring a continuing input to the work of the regional boards but also in ensuring a smooth transition to the new structures. Accordingly, I propose to postpone the elections to the regional fisheries boards for a further year. This is the only option open to me in accordance with section 15 of the Fisheries Act 1980. When made, the order will extend the term of office of the existing board members for a further year or until the vesting day of the new authority which I expect will be in August 2009, at which time the boards will cease to exist. The order will also result in the postponement of elections to co-operative societies.

While I am fully committed to the restructuring of the sector, I recognise that there will be challenges in bringing this about. I take the opportunity to emphasise that the changes to the sector will be progressed on an open and transparent basis. I trust the House will pass the motion approving the order to defer the elections.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire chuig na díospóireachta.

The restructuring and reorganisation of the fisheries boards have become such a long running saga that it will soon be on a par with that relating to the draining of the River Shannon. The recent suggestion that they were part of an overall rationalisation of State agencies is something of a distortion, particularly in view of the fact that the proposition to rationalise the fisheries boards dates back to the period 2005-06. The proposition to which I refer has been in the pipeline for three years and it is four years since the elections were originally due to be held. The latter is a serious development. Fine Gael is frustrated by the fact that the Government has allowed so much time to elapse in respect of what should be an achievable objective. In the light of the collective intelligence of the Minister and his civil servants, we are of the view that the task relating to this matter is not insurmountable. If it is proving to be so, that will hardly instil confidence with regard to the processes of government. It is time the Administration got its act together.

We do not oppose the concept of rationalisation, in principle. The theory behind it is acceptable and we have no difficulty with it. One of my party's spokespersons in the Dáil, Deputy Varadkar, has been championing the notion of reducing the number of quangos and engaging in a process of rationalisation, where possible, for a number of months. While we do not necessarily have a philosophical problem with rationalisation, we are concerned that the regional dimension and the democratic aspect of the current system should be maintained. We would not like to see the emergence of a HSE-style scenario, with a new structure being imposed on an existing one and an unwieldy monolith being created as a result.

The delay in the holding of elections is not acceptable. I am of the view that, deep down, the Minister also holds this opinion. At a meeting of the Joint Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources Deputy Coveney inquired as to why, if the Minister was so confident that the new structures would be in place next year, the elections needed to be postponed, particularly if the new structures would supersede those already in place. In the move to postpone the elections there appears to be an almost implicit acceptance that, yet again, all may not be ready. That is a bizarre concept but it could prove to be the case. Based on past history, we cannot be confident that what is envisaged for 2009 will be achieved. In 2006, before he was appointed, the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, expressed personal frustration about the delay in holding elections. He correctly identified it then as a discredited proposal. I put it to him that postponing these elections remains a discredited proposition, one which must be viewed as an admission of failure on the part of Government.

A point worthy of mention in the context of this debate is the fact that the Comptroller and Auditor General has not yet signed off on the 2007 accounts of the fisheries boards. This point was raised at a meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources and should be put on the record of the Seanad. A figure of €1.5 million is quoted in respect of rental property from 2005 to 2009, an astronomical amount. I am interested in hearing at the end of this debate the Minister's response in terms of whether we could be dealing with a FÁS-type situation and if internal checks in this regard have been carried out.

We are concerned, in the context of the all-Ireland agreement, that the cross-Border dimension be included in the new structures. I put the Minister on notice that Fine Gael will oppose this legislation on the grounds that it is frustratingly delaying, bizarre and is an indication of an incompetence on the part of Government. The electorate and observers of this debate today would be horrified at an Opposition acquiescing to such a procedure. This matter should have been dealt with a couple of years ago.

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire go dtí an tSeanaid agus gabhaim leithscéal leis mar go raibh sé ag feitheamh ar feadh tamaill, uair go leith nó mar sin ag tús na díospóireachta. The reason for this is the Opposition's concern, despite all the challenges and difficulties facing us economically and agriculturally in the food industry, in regard to whether there will be an Order of Business in the Seanad on Friday, which shows where people's priorities lie. The public have a right to expect a little better from Members of this House than, perhaps, they have received today. This applies also in respect of the Minister, whom I know is busy and has other priorities to attend to.

This issue has been before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources on a number of occasions for deferral. The Minister in his speech acknowledged the independent review of the inlands fisheries sector in 2005 which recommended significant restructuring in the sector. It is important we have an effective and dynamic organisation. Inland fisheries is an important part of our regional and national tourist industry. Anything that adds to the improvement and efficiencies within that area is highly desirable. The proposal is to have a national authority and the Minister stated he is committed to maintaining a strong regional input into that.

It is important to acknowledge, in the overall context of what has happened to many organisations established by the State in recent decades, that rationalisation in this area is long overdue. It has come about at this time as a result of our fiscal position. The Minister stated that the number of State bodies in this area has been reduced by 41. Obviously, there is a need for significant savings in public sector expenditure not alone in areas of activity but in areas where waste has built up. This will involve a reduction in staff numbers and, in my opinion, a reduction in salaries. Whatever is done in this regard needs to be done urgently and it will have the support of everybody in the House who has concerns in regard to our economic well-being. While many bodies are being rationalised this does not necessarily mean there will be a reduction in staff numbers or costs. Staff are to be transferred to other areas, an issue which needs to be examined. However, that matter is removed from this issue which relates to the deferral for 12 months of an election due on 16 December.

As the Minister stated today, and Minister of State, Deputy Seán Power, pointed out to the committee last week, there is not available any other mechanism to the tabling of this motion in respect of a deferral. This will allow, in the interim, the implementation body to bring forth its findings which, it is hoped, will enable the Minister to put in place a new structure by August 2009. This will entail the introduction of amending legislation which will be debated in the Houses.

It is important, given this matter has been ongoing for some years, that every effort is made to ensure this matter is brought to a conclusion and that we do not, as stated by Senator O'Reilly, find ourselves in 12 months' time seeking another deferral because we have not met the targeted date. I support the motion as I accept the necessity for it. I wish the Minister well in respect of the establishment of the new body which will, it is hoped, apart from promoting inland fisheries and ensuring its effectiveness and success, ensure we obtain value for money, which is very much part of the ethos we need to inject into all activities. This will become more apparent to all of us as we move through 2009 and 2010.

Photo of Michael McCarthyMichael McCarthy (Labour)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. While I will not be opposing this motion, I wish to raise a number of points about the manner in which these elections have been postponed and how often they have been postponed, which I do not believe is a good exercise in democracy. It is not good that any board should be permitted to remain in place for almost seven years without a fresh mandate. It is not good that one can use the excuse of the complexity of legislation and the legislative calendar to defend not having elections to the fisheries boards.

Not so long ago county councils remained in place for eight years. The then Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, quite rightly stated that this was unacceptable and put in place legislation to ensure councils did not run beyond five years. It is a pity he did not apply the same in respect of Seanad and Dáil elections. This illustrated a clear determination on the part of Government to ensure this type of situation was not permitted.

We have debated many facets of the marine during the past year and a half. The harbours Bill is being dealt with by the Department of Transport, the raising of Asgard II, the national sail training vessel which is at the bottom of the sea off the Bay of Biscay, is being dealt with by the Department of Defence and the postponement of elections to the fisheries boards is being dealt with by the Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources. It is not good enough that an area as important to an island nation as marine is being dealt with at policy level by several different Departments and Ministers. There is, I believe, an absence of a body of thought in terms of marine, shipping, marine leisure, fishing and all that follows marine. I know Government Members share and have expressed that view in this House. This, however, is not, as far as I am concerned, good enough. We need to move to a situation whereby one Department is responsible for all matters marine.

The Minister was reminded of the following point in the Dáil and by Senator O'Reilly before he took the Chair. His deep commitment to the preservation of wild fish stocks is fairly well known and it is recognised that this area is an interest of his. He was equally appalled by the postponement of the elections to the boards when he was in opposition.

I will not oppose the motion, but I am concerned that the Minister said the structures should be in place late next year. Priority should be given to ensuring they are in place by the start of 2009, thereby ensuring that we will not be debating another motion here next year proposing the postponement of elections to the Central Fisheries Board. It is not good for democracy and it is certainly not good for this aspect of the marine.

Photo of Dan BoyleDan Boyle (Green Party)
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I agree with most speakers who contributed to the debate on the motion that it is regrettable there will be a further postponement of the elections to these boards. This might be the third year for which the reorganisation process has lingered. There is an understanding that reorganisation of the sector is necessary, that it is happening and that it is progressing towards finality.

Reorganisation of the sector is needed on several grounds. There is a plethora of regional based bodies in all areas of activity, which are part of the public sector reform programme. Very few of the boundaries correspond with each other. In County Cork there are two regional fisheries boards, the southern fisheries board covering the northern part of the county and the south-western fisheries board covering the rest of the county. Having regard to how health care is administered and how the Garda Síochána functions, there is a series of overlapping regional boundaries for several areas of State activities. That is one of the main reasons we should examine how the fisheries boards, as only one of those areas of activity, should be organised.

In finalising the reorganisation process, it is necessary to ensure there is a degree of consistency. In dealing with the fisheries boards in County Cork, which cover three major rivers, the Blackwater, the Bandon and the Lee, different positions are often taken regarding fish conservation and capital works associated with those rivers. It is important that whoever is responsible for administering inland fisheries does so consistently to allow them to operate effectively. Everyone would agree that this has been an ongoing problem in the manner in which we administer inland fisheries.

However, the concept of democracy is important at regional fisheries level. The postponement of elections to the boards has resulted in many vacancies remaining unfilled for a long period. I am particularly mindful of angling representatives on some of the fisheries boards, who are among the most important members in terms of how these boards function because they allow for the consumer's view on how our inland fisheries should be organised. While there is impatience and even intolerance about the process, there is a growing understanding that we are reaching the end of it.

However, I share the sentiments expressed by other speakers that a similar motion cannot come before the House next year. I am confident that such a motion will not come before us. I would not go as far as other speakers in saying that a deadline of three or six months should be set. It should be enough that we recognise that we are coming towards the end of the process on the reorganisation of inland fisheries and we should push that process along. To be arbitrary and set a date would not help the process.

It is important that all of us, in contributing to this motion, recognise that there is need for reorganisation, accept that it is happening and welcome it when it is finalised. I am confident this is — it must be — the last of such debates before either House of Oireachtas.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. This is an important debate and the subject is one on which perhaps we should have a broader debate.

The inland fisheries sector is an important industry for this country. Our pigmeat industry is in a crisis. Our inland fisheries is significant in terms of tourism. The River Moy in my county is probably the finest salmon fishing river in the world. I compliment the regional fisheries boards and the Central Fisheries Board on the tremendous work they have done over many years. They have done great work on tributaries, main rivers and lakes, whether it be in terms of salmon, trout or pike stocks. It is one sector in which there has not been any great waste of funds. Every single euro the boards, whether it be the regional fisheries boards or the Central Fisheries Board, have been allocated seems to have been well spent.

From what the Minister said, it strikes me that the Government does not have a great commitment to the development of our inland fisheries. A review was carried out in 2005, which is nearly five years ago——

Photo of Jim WalshJim Walsh (Fianna Fail)
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Three years ago.

Photo of Paddy BurkePaddy Burke (Fine Gael)
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We are approaching 2009 and the review was set in train in 2005. It was carried out a long time ago at any rate. This is the second or third year that elections to the boards have been postponed.

The Minister told us that a review was carried out in 2008 and that the Department of Finance indicated in July that it was changing route. This Department must not have had much work done on whatever new structures were to be put in place for inland fisheries. It appears that the regional fisheries boards and the Central Fisheries Board will be placed under the remit of some other semi-State body or some other board. It would be disastrous if they were to be placed under the remit of some other board, given that there does not appear to be any Government commitment in regard to their development. I hope that the Minister, on behalf of the Government, when replying, will state that there is commitment to the development of inland fisheries and to the work of the Central Fisheries Board and the regional fisheries boards, which are doing tremendous work.

It is obvious from what the Minister said that, with the striking out of 41 boards, he will bring the Central Fisheries Boards and regional fisheries boards under the remit of some other semi-State board or some other board. That would be a retrograde step. The inland fisheries bodies should stand on their own. The boards have done great work over the years and that substantial industry is undervalued. It should work more closely with the tourist board. There is no doubt there is great scope for improvement there. The sooner the Minister brings this matter to a head and finalises it, the better. As Senator Boyle said, I hope that another year will not pass before elections to the boards are held or a new system is put in place.

Photo of Eamon RyanEamon Ryan (Dublin South, Green Party)
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I thank Senators who contributed for the opinions they expressed. I assure the Seanad that the Government attaches the greatest importance to the development of inland fisheries and it is intended the motion before us will be the last time any such extension would apply. The difference between this extension and the previous ones is that in this case we have a clear path and timeline for a resolution as to the new structures that will be put in place in the inland fisheries sector. That will be the establishment of a single national authority with a regional structure but not boards at regional level, which will still be representative in nature as the future fisheries representation body, which will provide feedback for various interests.

When we came into government, I considered it appropriate to take some of the work that had been done by the chairman of the Central Fisheries Board and examine what should be the nature and structure of the boards. That process was in train. It was right to engage with the chairpersons of the existing authorities. An extensive process was undertaken in the past year, not only with the fisheries boards but with each of the angling and other organisations where the various outcomes were discussed at a series of meetings. That was superseded by the Government's thinking on the rationalisation of State boards, the need for a reduction in that area and the work that was done during the summer. The Government made a clear commitment to rationalise a number of State boards and agencies across various sectors, including this one.

The outcome was the proposed structure we have clearly outlined. It takes time to prepare legislation because it is complex, lengthy and detailed and we must get it right. I am determined we will do that in the first half of next year when we will create an alternative structure that will be in place by the middle of next summer. In a sense, that pre-empts the possibility of a continuation of the existing boards. That is something to which I am committed. The outcome will result in a better structure for the inland fisheries area and all those involved in it, anglers, those interested in rivers and wildlife and those working within the sector. We have a skill to resource in the existing regional boards.

I assure Senator O'Reilly that the resources available in the area are a fraction of what was available in some of the other agencies to which he referred. I do not believe any of the spending that was evident there has, or could have, occurred in the fisheries sector simply because the budgets are so tight. If we get the structures in the fisheries sector right we will have an opportunity to increase the budgets and spend the money we all want to see spent on protecting our valuable inland rivers. I am committed to that, as is the Minister of State, Deputy Seán Power. I will give it my single-minded attention. Agreement of the motion would facilitate a continuation of the existing boards for six months while we await the creation of a different structure, one that is more streamlined and that will work better.

Question put.

The Dail Divided:

For the motion: 29 (Dan Boyle, Martin Brady, Larry Butler, Ivor Callely, Ciarán Cannon, John Carty, Donie Cassidy, Maria Corrigan, Mark Daly, Déirdre de Búrca, John Ellis, Geraldine Feeney, Camillus Glynn, John Gerard Hanafin, Cecilia Keaveney, Terry Leyden, Lisa McDonald, Marc MacSharry, Brian Ó Domhnaill, Labhrás Ó Murchú, Francis O'Brien, Denis O'Donovan, Fiona O'Malley, Ned O'Sullivan, Ann Ormonde, Kieran Phelan, Jim Walsh, Mary White, Diarmuid Wilson)

Against the motion: 23 (Ivana Bacik, Paul Bradford, Paddy Burke, Paudie Coffey, Paul Coghlan, Maurice Cummins, Paschal Donohoe, Frances Fitzgerald, Dominic Hannigan, Fidelma Healy Eames, Alan Kelly, Michael McCarthy, Nicky McFadden, Rónán Mullen, David Norris, Joe O'Reilly, Joe O'Toole, John Paul Phelan, Phil Prendergast, Eugene Regan, Shane Ross, Brendan Ryan, Alex White)

Tellers: Tá, Senators Déirdre de Búrca and Diarmuid Wilson; Níl, Senators Maurice Cummins and Joe O'Reilly.

Question declared carried.