Wednesday, 22 February 2006
Dáil Eireann Debate
In the brief discussion we had on this Bill on the Order of Business with the Taoiseach and the leader of the Fine Gael Party, Deputy Kenny, I tried to outline why it is so important that we should come forward with a system of administrative penalties. The fishing industry faces major problems and we must create a sustainable industry while protecting vulnerable stocks. We must also ensure that the blue treasure of our nation, which encompasses something like 1 million km2 of seas, is preserved for future generations. Above all, we must ensure a future for the 8,000 people or so — according to Marine Institute figures — who go out to sea on a daily basis in very dangerous conditions. In recent weeks, two boats from the east coast were lost at sea. It remains an incredibly dangerous profession. We must ensure a secure livelihood for years and decades to come.
We must also remember the other 40,000 workers who depend in one way or another on the fishing industry and the people living in coastal communities. There are six major fishery harbours and 15 other important fishery harbour locations. It is critical that we build a sustainable and profitable industry. It is important that we create a situation where fishermen will make sufficient profit to invest in new technology and boats. It is necessary that the high level of uncertainty and complexity surrounding fisheries and marine management is removed.
We need a level playing pitch. The Minister went to Europe and, in what appeared to be an almost off-hand comment, surrendered 7,000 tonnes of our mackerel quota. He did not succeed in ensuring that his Department fulfilled its responsibilities under previous fishing Acts and the Ministers and Secretaries Act, to the extent that for three years running — between 2002 and 2005 — the catch returns were not submitted for this country. This was a case of incredible maladministration by the Department, of which the Minister is the political head. It is for that reason that we have been facing major fines.
The most astonishing discovery we made in the lengthy preliminary discussions at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources was that our Naval Service has no control over the fishing tactics, strategy and catches of the other European fleets. The Commodore informed the committee that it was not part of his function to check for quotas or total allowable catches. As other Deputies have said, the current system under the Common Fisheries Policy is unacceptable. The Minister has said we need to get our own house in order first. Our house is that million km2 of seas, yet what we will achieve by 7 p.m. this evening is to introduce fairly draconian measures to invigilate our fishermen while boats from Holland, France and Spain can do as they will.
The Minister achieved little in this regard on his recent visit to Brussels. He came back with nothing. All he has sold to the fishing industry is, effectively, pie in the sky. He has not protected our stocks or created a sustainable basis for the fishing industry. As we speak, there are at least eight Dutch factory ships on our seas, not just over-fishing but grading the fish, which is a crime under the Common Fisheries Policy, and preventing our fisheries protection officers from seeing what they are doing. The Bill will do nothing to alleviate this.
We should introduce a system of appropriate penalties which is the intention of many of my amendments. It would be fair to have an administrative penalties system for minor infringements. We have had a long debate about this matter. It appeared at first that the Attorney General was totally opposed to it. That is what the Taoiseach told me on the floor of this House. The Minister and the then Minister of State in the Department, Deputy Gallagher — our late lamented Minister of State who fell off our great national trawler as we steamed through the seas of this Bill — stated that it appeared to be unconstitutional. Following correspondence on administrative penalties between my party leader, Deputy Rabbitte, and the Taoiseach, it appears clear that administrative penalties are constitutional. The reason we know this is that the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, has imposed administrative penalties on the communications industry.
On Committee Stage, I recalled that the Minister had transposed four EU directives into law in the area of communications, all of which impose administrative penalties. It is clear that the financial regulator, IFSRA, can impose administrative penalties under its founding Act. Those penalties include an administrative fine of up to €5 million. We are also familiar with administrative penalties under the Road Traffic Act. As the Minister well knows if he has read it, the second major amendment I tabled is based almost completely on the Road Traffic Act 2003. It gives the basis for penalty points, parking fines and other fines with which we are familiar under the Road Traffic Acts. The measures I have outlined permit the Minister to include a system in this Bill that would permit him to impose administrative penalties by way of regulation. I thank the Minister for considering our advice and case. He replied to us in a lengthy letter which dealt with administrative penalties and other matters.
The key point he appears to be making is that, rather than being unconstitutional, administrative penalties are unsuitable for the fishing industry. However, I told him that some of the greatest crimes in the history of this State were not dealt with by the criminal courts. We have only to revisit the history of the Committee of Public Accounts, of which I was a member. That committee invigilated the banking industry and discovered evidence of widespread illegality across the board, yet nobody ended up in prison. We witnessed exchanges with the Taoiseach about this matter this morning. Nobody involved in these illegal practices ended up with a criminal record. The matter was dealt with through administrative sanctions, although very serious crimes were uncovered. In respect of minor offences, there appears to be one law for certain professions and another for fishermen, which is unfair and should be addressed.
When one examines the European scoreboard for the Common Fisheries Policy, one can see that a system of administrative sanctions is being considered by all the great fishing countries. Scotland is considering adopting such a system and the Netherlands, Belgium, France and Spain have a system of administrative penalties based on their civil law systems. As we noted on Second Stage and Committee Stage, many of the penalties under these regimes are very low, compared to some of the penalties set out in this Bill which already exist under the 1959 Act and other fisheries Acts.
There has been an exchange of correspondence and we have received the Minister’s response. My party and I are bitterly opposed to major criminality. Very serious allegations of criminality in the fishing industry were made in a recent article by Stephen Collins in The Irish Times. Some of this criminal activity is alleged to have taken place in Scotland and was referred to by the Minister. It is appalling if these allegations are true and the full rigour of the law must be brought to bear on them. This provision is included in this Bill and the earlier Acts which have not been struck down by the judgment by the High Court in the case involving Vincent Browne. We support this but we still believe that it is reasonable to ask for a system of administrative penalties.
Amendment No. 1 would change the title of the Bill to introduce a system of administrative penalties. Amendment No. 6 would bring about a major change, which I hope will be considered and accepted, even at this late stage, by the Minister. This system of administrative penalties is based on that set out in the Road Traffic Act 2003. Under this model, a system of penalty notices would co-exist with criminal offences. If a penalty notice is issued and paid, no prosecution would be instituted so the individual concerned would not end up with a criminal record. However, neither side would be compelled to either issue or pay the notice so cases could be heard in court if either side so wished.
If the Minister accepts amendment No. 6, the State would have discretion to issue fisheries penalties notices for lesser infringements in circumstances where to do so would be a deterrent and be dissuasive and where no major financial benefit accrued to the defendant from his or her offence. In any case where a deterrent or dissuasive penalty or the deprivation of the wrongdoer’s benefit required a greater punishment, the State would be free not to issue a penalty notice but to proceed immediately to a criminal prosecution and sanction. The Minister rightly pointed out that a system of penalty notices or on-the-spot fines does not involve decriminalisation but it involves a practical way of dealing with many minor infringements without recourse to the criminal courts.
It appears that the relevant regulations under the Road Traffic Act 2003 impose different penalties for similar offences in different circumstances and impose an additional 50% penalty if a fine is paid late. Therefore, there is considerable discretion in creating a penalties regime which would be broadly proportionate to the seriousness of the offence to which the penalty applies, bearing in mind that very serious offences will continue to be dealt with by the courts. It is clear that there is scope for introducing a system of administrative penalties based on the Road Traffic Act 2003 for minor offences which would be concurrent with criminal penalties and sanctions.
As the Minister can see, the new chapter 2 and section 6 proposed by amendment No. 6 refer to the Sea Fisheries Acts up to 2006. Section 6 in chapter 2 sets out a procedure whereby an offence is identified, the notice is served or fixed to a vessel pursuant to subsection (2)(b) of section 6 and the person liable to make a payment during a period of 28 days, beginning on the day of the notice, pays an authorised officer at a specified place a fixed charge payment or a prescribed amount accompanied by the notice duly completed. The rest of the section details the other elements of a system of administrative penalties, including the actions open to the authorised office, the fisheries protection officer, the way in which the Minister may make regulations for enabling the section to have full effect and the fact that any such regulations in respect of fixed charges referred to in section 6 may specify different amounts in respect of different fixed charge offences and to such offences involving different classes of vessel and such offences committed in different areas.
I ask the Minister for the final time to consider the plea we have heard from the fishing industry throughout this debate not to criminalise and smear the industry and those valiant men and women, often in deprived coastal communities, who work day and night to support their families but to give them what appears to be a reasonable and fair option. Great Britain, which is another great country with a system of common law in Europe, appears to be moving towards a system of administrative fines, based on a reading of a number of documents. A study published a few weeks ago by the British Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs includes a consultation on a system of administrative penalties for fisheries offences. The report refers to a document prepared by the strategy unit of the British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, entitled Net Benefits: A sustainable and profitable future for UK fishing. According to this document, criminal penalties should be reserved for persistent and extreme criminal behaviour. For remaining penalties, the imposition of administrative penalties would be a sufficient deterrent.
This report is the result of a number of fisheries documents published by the British Government and the Scottish Executive, such as Securing the Benefits: The joint UK response to the Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit Net Benefits report on the future of the fishing industry in the UK. On Committee Stage, I quoted from a very fine document published a few months ago by the Fisheries Minister of the Scottish Executive entitled A Sustainable Framework for Scottish Sea Fisheries. According to this document, the Scottish Executive “will explore options for a wider system of administrative penalties as an alternative or complement to criminal prosecution”.
Like the Irish fishing industry, the Scottish fishing industry is a very important one. The Minister is aware that the British Government and the Scottish Executive are seriously considering a system of administrative penalties because they have examined the long history and great tradition of fishing, which involved hunter gatherers battling the elements, and what the fairest solution would be. Fishing is a very difficult industry within which to operate and it has been a very difficult way of life for generations of coastal communities who are now represented by many Deputies. I understand that a few months ago, all the skippers in Whitby in Yorkshire ended up in court and received criminal convictions as a result of minor infringements of the law. These people were criminalised.
Fishermen want to have what they regard a sustainable and profitable industry, which is also the ambition of the Irish Labour Party. It appears that there will be administrative penalties at both UK and Scottish levels. We led the way once or twice before with the ban on smoking and so on. The Minister has a history of not going with the herd at times. Therefore, I ask him to be radical and say to everyone from coastal communities that Ireland will go the route of administrative penalties.
Mr. Perry: I welcome the opportunity to address the House on the Sea-Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction Bill. This legislation is an example to the nation of how legislation should not be introduced. It is symptomatic of the general mismanagement, lack of awareness and neglect that has been the hallmark of the Government’s approach to the fishing industry for the past nine years. It has no policy for the industry and, because of this lack of direction, we spent many days in the Oireachtas joint committee discussing 222 amendments to the original Bill. The fact that more than 100 were Government amendments emphasises the ill-conceived and ill-thought out nature of the Bill and lack of concentration on the industry prior to the introduction of the legislation.
This could not contrast more with the approach being taken in the UK where they are considering modernising their fisheries legislation. There the Minister launched a consultation process, which was open to all interested parties, to assess the possibility of reducing the burden on fishermen, the courts system and all concerned by making minor fisheries offences subject to administrative sanctions. Here, however, we find none of this transparency and rational debate. Instead we have had to listen to Ministers engage in megaphone diplomacy and propaganda.
The substitution of legislation for action is a major difficulty. As Deputy Broughan stated correctly, if illegal activity is taking place, it should be dealt with. The legislation will not change this. The Minister cited the Browne case but I do not think it will have an impact. We have also had to endure the debacle of the changing horses scenario. While it was obvious that the Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher, did not support the Bill, he had to do so in public. He was then followed by the Minister who sought to influence the public through the media by attempting to discredit the entire fishing industry. It is appalling because the industry is a national asset. The perception of the industry which has been illustrated in the press may be of concern to those who may wish to invest in the industry, such as the banks and financial institutions. Unfortunately, the spin the Minister put on the issue has damaged the industry.
I want to make Fine Gael’s position clear. It does not condone over-fishing. Where there is large-scale criminal behaviour, it must be tackled. Serious offences must attract serious penalties. However, it is also Fine Gael’s position, and the position of the majority of Opposition Members and a large number of Government backbenchers, that minor offences should be dealt with by administrative penalties. Some 86% of European offences are dealt with in this fashion. The European Commissioner for Fisheries, Mr. Borg, indicated that he would prefer administrative sanctions. The Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, stated that if Europe issues a mandate, he will consider administrative sanctions. This is a cop-out because the Minister knows that no mandate will be given from Europe. This issue of administrative sanctions is a major issue which needs to be addressed. This is an ideal opportunity to address the issue.
The fishing industry faces considerable problems. Fishermen are required to be familiar with thousands of pages of EU legislation so inevitably mistakes will be made. This reality is accepted by the majority of other member states who deal with these infringements in a commonsense way by using administrative penalties. Ireland is now the only country in Europe not considering this option. I urge the Minister to come down off his high horse and consider this option which will save Irish fishermen from criminal records and costly court appearances. It will also save money for Irish taxpayers, about whom the Minister appears to be concerned, because we will not have to spend resources on court proceedings for every offence.
The Minister’s arguments against the introduction of administrative sanctions are spurious. Not only did the Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher, seek to influence the public with a procession of half truths, the Ministers have attempted to do the same to Members of the Opposition and their own backbenchers. This is a serious matter when one considers the constitutionality of administrative sanctions. At a meeting of the Oireachtas joint committee of 12 October last, the Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher, said: “[L]egal advisers tell me that Article 34.1 of the Constitution poses a problem if I wish to introduce administrative sanctions”. This was a clear indication to members of the committee and the fishing industry that there were legal difficulties. It was also reinforced to the committee on 26 January by Deputy O’Donovan, a supporter of the amendments to this Bill, when he said:
It appears that the joint committee has been led on a merry dance and a significant amount of time and resources has been spent on the issue for no reason other than being led on a wild goose chase over which the Minister presided. It is nothing short of scandalous that there has been an attempt to guillotine the Dáil debate on the issue. Were it not for the intervention of the Fine Gael Party and the rest of the Opposition, this would have happened to the detriment of the Irish fishing industry.
The Minister is now claiming that administrative sanctions are unsuitable. How can a system which is suitable for the majority of countries in Europe be unsuitable for Ireland? It appears to be acceptable to have a Common Fisheries Policy but a widely different system of enforcing it. We must examine section 13 which allows the Minister to issue authorisations. These authorisations are pressure stock licences, which normally relate to quota stock management. They authorise the fishing of certain stock in a specific area at a certain time. For example, the Celtic Sea herring fishery is open at a certain time of the year and the Minister allows certain boats to fish there. As herring is a quota species, the Minister manages the fishery so that he can close it when the quota is finished.
The amendment proposes that the Minister should issue an order which would delegate these authorisations to a body specified in the order. Such a body, which would be made up of producer groups, could then issue the authorisations. The legislation is about subsidiarity which is promoted in Europe by many countries. It is not the Minister or his Department who fish illegally, it is the fishermen. This amendment would allow the Minister to make the producer organisations responsible for the actions of their members.
The amendment to subsection (2) proposes that a person who fishes must enter into a bond, as must the body which will be made up of producer groups. The amendment proposes that the bond will not be less than twice the value of the fish estimated by the Minister that the sea fishing boat to which the authorisation relates may catch pursuant to that authorisation. The amendment proposes that the bond should not be less than twice the value of the stock in respect of the delegated functions in subsection (1). The amendment dictates that the bond will be forfeited where the infringement is detected. However, if the body decides that the breach is technical in nature or minor, a percentage of the bond may stand to be forfeited. Section 6 allows that the sea fisheries protection authority may appoint a person to exercise the functions of the body when it is deemed that the body has failed to perform its functions.
Subsection (9) of my amendment No. 23 states that when the bond mentioned in subsection (4) is forfeited, the authorisation to fish will be void for a period of 30 days for the first infringement, 60 days for the second and 100 days for the third. While this may seem harsh, anybody who continues to offend must be treated in a strong manner as their actions could impose severe penalties on the Irish taxpayer from the European Court of Justice. The period in which the authorisation is void begins on the day of the forfeiture and continues for days when it would have been lawful to fish.
Subsection (9) also deals with an increase in the size of the bond after a first and second infringement, respectively, have occurred. If a fisherman infringes once, the bond will increase to four times the value of the fish that the sea-fishing boat may catch pursuant to the relevant authorisation. If the fisherman infringes a second time, the bond will be not less than six times the value of the fish. Subsection (10) provides that if the bond is forfeited three or more times in a five-year period, neither the fisherman nor the boat may participate in fishing the stock or groups of stock to which the authorisation relates for a period of one calendar year.
The Bill as it stands seems to be all about criminalisation. Section 28 sets out the proceedings and sanctions in regard to the offences outlined in the tables included in that section. Amendment No. 23 provides for an approach of natural justice rather then criminal proceedings. Subsection (5) proposes that the body to which the Minister has delegated his or her functions shall notify the person concerned of the proposal and the reasons thereof. I ask the Minister to consider seriously the implications of this amendment in regard to administrative sanctions.
As Deputy Broughan said, this Bill has been debated to death. The Minister has said the taxpayer will be exposed to fines of millions of euro if we fail to implement this legislation, but that is not the case. It is merely another false justification from the Minister. The example was given of the French Government having to pay €20 million with additional fines of €57 million. This related to a case dating back to 1991 and there has been a complete failure since then by the French Government to answer or even attempt to answer concerns. A report in last Monday’s edition of The Irish Times relates that an EU official said “Ireland does not face any multi-million euro fines over CFP breaches”. The impending fines we face relate to the failures of the Minister in providing catch and effort information as required under EU law. Would the Minister support automatic criminalisation of those who fail to comply with data regulations? If so, a number of his officials would find themselves in hot water as several proceedings have been initiated against us in this regard.
The Minister has alleged during this debate that there are high levels of criminality within the fishing industry. The effect of this was to blacken the name of the entire industry. When pressed on this, he was quick to point out that this alleged criminal activity involves a small number of vessels, but the allegations have done untold damage to the industry by drawing conclusions based on the activities of a minority. All these issues are being pursued by the Minister in the name of the conservation of fish stocks. People in coastal communities, however, are reasonable in asking about the fleet of ten foreign freezer trawlers currently fishing thousands of tonnes of fish per day only 20 miles from the south coast. Is the Minister aware that the second largest vessel in the world has just arrived off our coast to fish for mackerel? Will this receive the same level of attention from the Minister and our control resources? I know it will not.
The only positive element arising from this debate is that many more people now realise that fishing is a valuable industry for coastal communities. This was highlighted by the dignified protest by the sector in the ports in January. These communities face harsh challenges on a daily basis and need our political support. We have failed to provide this support and there is now need for a comprehensive plan. In supporting these amendments, I ask the Minister to seriously consider, in light of the major debate that has taken place, the introduction of administrative sanctions for minor offences.
Mr. Eamon Ryan: I welcome Report Stage of this Bill and look forward to its progress to the Seanad. It has been beneficial to examine the import of the legislation at length on Committee Stage and prior to that in our committee meetings. The main conclusion I have drawn in this debate concerns the need for an effective enforcement system. The hunter gatherer instinct is a healthy impulse in humankind, something that has been beneficial and even essential to us. Fishing, moreover, is an honourable tradition and a livelihood beneficial to society. It is also a dangerous occupation in which major risks must be taken.
There is now, however, a recognition that there are limits to what we can take. The need for an effective enforcement system is recognised even by the fishing industry itself because the lack of enforced limits has led to a situation where fisherman can see that future fishing stocks are threatened. While there is a strong impulse in the short term to partake proudly of one’s work on the high seas, there is a recognition from the fishing community that there will be no stocks left if fishing activity is not regulated. Instead of hunting and gathering, we will be sitting in empty piers bemoaning our lack of foresight and wisdom. We all, therefore, agree on the need for a good control system.
I am sure all Members agree that in the case of a minor offence, it would be preferable to impose an administrative fine rather then hauling the perpetrator to court. I was satisfied on Committee Stage to support amendments which set out this principle. It was articulated clearly on Committee Stage, however, that in taking such a line, we must consider in more detail what constitutes a minor offence. In allowing for administrative sanctions, we must not breach what I contend is the fundamental first principle in what we are trying to achieve, the necessity of preserving future stocks for everybody’s benefit. Any offence which can be shown not to have an adverse effect in this regard should be considered suitable for administrative sanction. I commend the Deputies who have put forward amendments in this regard.
Deputy Broughan set out in detail the legal principles in regard to administrative sanctions. The two amendments which deal with the specifics as to how such a system would work in terms of the offences that apply and so on are those of Deputies Perry and Ferris. In regard to Deputy Perry’s amendment No. 23, which has clearly been extensively thought out by Fine Gael, I am concerned there may be a move in the direction of creating an even more complicated legal system. This might almost require a completely separate Bill because the definition of fines and offences seems to be expanded rather than tightened.
I commend Deputy Ferris’s amendment No. 51. It is a progression on his original table. I had concerns about that on Committee Stage in that what were described as minor offences seemed to me nevertheless to be offences at the heart of the system. The failure to make an entry in a logbook is not a minor offence but is at the heart of a corrupt system. If the control system is based on a logbook recording procedure and it is easy because of the nature of that logbook system or there is such a temptation for a skipper to fail to fill in the logbook correctly, to record a landing correctly or to keep the monitoring system working so that the Naval Service knows where he is, there is incredible incentive to fishermen to break these regulations and we end up with what has been the position which is open fishing and the over-exploitation of stocks.
Deputy Ferris’s new amendment brings the focus down to the case of smaller catch values. I have a number of concerns about that. First, this brings us into an area of difficult legal definition in terms of the values of catch and the nature of the offences concerned. A second concern is that the need for the management of the stocks is possibly even more important in our smaller inshore fisheries, to which this level of fines would apply, than it is in our deep sea fisheries, although the latter is probably doing greater damage in terms of the hauls that can be taken.
Whatever about competing against a fishing vessel from a different nation, if one is lobster potting or working on the inshore fisheries and competing against one’s neighbour, if there is an incentive for people try to get away with landing a catch that is not properly recorded, or not following the right procedures, or not using the right net, this is an area where we need even tighter enforcement. We must have proper and accurate policing of our inshore fisheries because otherwise neighbour will doubt neighbour which is worse than our fishermen doubting the activities of a foreign vessel. Such a scenario brings difficulties at local level.
While the detail in the table in Deputy Ferris’s amendment is an improvement and a refinement on the previous one, I am not convinced that examples such as failure to complete a landing declaration as per regulations leading to a fine of 20% of the value of the catch on board is a sufficient deterrent to a person who might consider failing to give a landing declaration. If one fails on any point in the chain of reporting and control, one leaves the opportunity open to a person who may be tempted to breach the regulations. The lack of political will to ensure we have a proper enforcement system has caused the problem the fishing industry more than any other group is now facing. It is the small things we need to get right.
I do not have details of the legal case to which Deputy Broughan referred in terms of Whitby. I stand to be corrected on my interpretation of it which I gathered from what I read briefly in the newspapers. That case highlighted that while an offence may be minor, and while no one wants to criminalise a fleet, the reality is that where it seems that everyone has to do something because the system itself is not properly enforced is a very good indication of what the problem is. That case is not one I would see as just a small matter of over-fishing that was then criminalised and the offender was brought to court. That offence was an indictment of the system in that everyone involved had to be engaged in it. The further indictment is that in the North Seas which has been utterly over-fished there is an example, perhaps slightly a few years ahead of us in terms of where we are going, unless we have proper enforcement. It may be that an individual case is minor but the overall effect where a multitude of individual minor offences are occurring is that there is no fishing left and that the fleet is left high and dry.
Mr. Eamon Ryan: That is correct. The second major lesson we have learnt throughout this useful debate is that as well as a proper control system, we need a proper recording system. If the Minister pushes through a strict enforcement system, it behoves him as a matter of urgency to insist that there be a different control system in place in the European Union. I imagine this could be done with a certain amount of ease. I will return to that point at a later stage because it is not the main import of this amendment. It is, however, a valid argument that there is no point in our being strong on enforcement if we do not have a fair recording system.
I note that the electronic daily recording system of quota, which is a central plank of such a fair and equal quota system, was proposed in the 2000 review of the Common Fisheries Policy but was turned down by the Council of Ministers. I understand such an electronic system has been proposed again this time by the French Administration, although I stand to be corrected on that. The Minister should fight for the introduction of such a system. Perhaps the bigger and broader lesson is that lack of political will removed the control system that we would have preferred that would have protected our most important waters. That lesson I have learnt from this debate is that we as politicians need to strongly back conservation because in the long run it also backs the fishing industry.
Mr. Ferris: I wish to speak on my amendments Nos. 40 to 42, inclusive, and amendments Nos. 46, 47 and 51. Since I have been involved politically at electoral level from 1999, the two main issues I have encountered in my constituency are the nitrates directive and its impact on farmers and this Bill and its impact on the future livelihood of fishermen.
I record the enormous hurt experienced within fishing communities as a result of the innuendo of criminality surrounding fishing communities, which many people believe was deliberately contrived. I refer in particular to newspaper articles prior to the Committee Stage debate. I have never seen people as disillusioned or morale as low in our fishing communities as a result of what is ongoing. With the decline in income from the industry and the rise in fuel costs, the cost of gear, of replacing parts and of upgrading and repairs, the industry is in a state of massive decline. I speak not on behalf of the big super trawlers in this State but predominantly on behalf of the ordinary, genuine, decent hardworking fisherman or woman who braves the elements to go out on a daily basis to try to make a living from fishing.
Allegations were made on Committee Stage regarding the illegal landing of more than €1 million worth of fish and the innuendo was that Irish trawlers were involved in that landing. If that happened, I have not heard of it. Nor do I know of anybody in the fishing community who has heard of it. An innuendo was also made that Irish trawlers were involved in the landing of fish in Scotland. I have spoken to representatives of the fishing organisations on this matter and there is no record of that.
All these allegations appearing in the press at a convenient time, and deliberately so, to generate suspicions among the public surrounding fishing communities has greatly hurt people. This has been particularly damaging to Government Deputies representing those communities. I refer to west Cork, Donegal, Galway, south Kerry in particular, the south east coast and all other coastal areas. Deputies representing those areas are trying as best they can to reflect the concerns and the fears of their communities against what appears to be a hopeless endeavour, judging by the evidence emerging from the debate so far. Irrespective of the debate, it appears this Bill will go through without any real changes to it that would address the concerns of people involved directly and indirectly in the fishing industry.
The amendments to which I speak primarily concern administrative procedures to address mistakes made by fishermen, such as being over quota, making an error in the log book or drifting unintentionally into restricted areas. They provide for a mechanism to ensure that genuine mistakes do not lead to fishermen being labelled as criminals.
I have a close association with fishing organisations, and men and women involved in the industry, and know that 99% of them are decent people trying to do their best. No one on these benches suggests that 100% of them are compliant. There are some who flout the law for greed and damage their communities and fellow fishermen. They are, however, few in number but should be taken out of the industry. They damage the stocks and seem to care even less about the future of their children who might become involved in the industry. They damage their communities and the country but they are only a few.
It is folly for the Minister to proceed with criminal sanctions against the entire industry. It is wrong that people who make mistakes will have criminal convictions. We on this side of the House would fail in our duty if we did not take this into account and advocate administrative sanctions. It is seldom that everyone takes the same view but we are in direct consultation with the communities involved and debate this with them.
I agree with Deputy Eamon Ryan that fish stocks must be conserved to protect our future. I am well acquainted with two conservation practices in my area, one being the notching of lobsters between Kerry Head and Bandon Head. This is a loose agreement between the fishermen to notch the female and undersized lobsters.
The fishermen police the activity and note if anybody catches these lobsters. That should be taken into account. Where there is a level playing pitch for all concerned on which almost 100% of people are honest, the fishermen will police the transgressors. I have seen it work in respect of one individual who took female and undersized lobsters. The lobsters were taken from him, he was reported to the authorities and is no longer fishing. The fishermen, not draconian laws, achieved that.
An oyster fishery in Fenit Harbour was closed down 25 years ago because of unrestricted taking of undersized oysters. The formation of a co-operative society has saved this business which is now thriving and managed with a significant input from those involved in the industry.
The Minister seems intent on pushing this Bill through almost as it is drafted. This will effectively marginalise and isolate the fishermen. The Minister disregards their concerns and is imposing a measure on them that will criminalise their community. It will have the opposite effect to that intended.
All the Deputies on this side of the House, and many on the Government backbenches, wish to see a fair system taking into account the concerns of those actively involved in the industry, to protect their future and give them something to leave to their children. Conservation is central to that aim. On Committee Stage the Minister said he had seen nothing that would change his mind regarding administrative sanctions. These are not unconstitutional. They will be imposed in the United Kingdom, and most European states are applying the same mechanism. We choose to be different but at what cost?
The Minister does not have a feeling for what it means to live in a rural coastal community. I do not say this as an insult but because the Minister is from a midlands county in which it is almost impossible to have a grasp of these issues.
Mr. Ferris: If the Minister lived in a coastal community he would understand how the people there must struggle to make a livelihood. The Minister should listen to Deputy O’Donovan who made a good case on Committee Stage about what is happening. He also knows the difficulties the fishermen and their communities experience.
It is difficult for the Minister to understand but I urge him at this last minute to reach out and listen to his backbenchers who know that 99% of those in the industry are decent, hardworking people. There may be 1% who are rogues and criminals and are prepared to destroy their livelihood and that of their families for their own greedy intentions. If the Minister can take time out today he should sit down and speak to the fishermen and consider the merits of our arguments.
This Bill criminalises not only those who deliberately pursue illegal activities but also those who are genuinely concerned about their future. They may make mistakes by being a small amount over quota or having unintentionally failed to make an entry in the logbook on a given day. These points must be taken into account and it is essential that the Minister listens, even at this late stage, and hopefully takes cognisance of what we, and particularly his backbenchers, say.
Mr. J. O’Keeffe: I will make the main point. There is only one core issue in this Bill, namely, whether Irish fishermen will be dealt with in respect of minor and technical offences on the same basis as fishermen in the rest of Europe, by way of administrative penalties. We have heard a great deal of propaganda and talk in committee and elsewhere, and the Minister has suggested that a person should not get away with a fine of €3,000 in respect of a catch worth €500,000. That is rubbish. That is not the issue here. Everybody wants serious penalties for serious offences.
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