Private Members’ Business - Sea Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction (Fixed Penalty Notice) (Amendment) Bill 2009: Second Stage (Resumed)

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 708 No. 4

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Question again proposed: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”

Deputy Liz McManus: Information on Liz McManus  Zoom on Liz McManus  I welcome this Bill presented by Fine Gael, which seeks to amend the Sea Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction Act 2006. I also thank Deputy Seán Sherlock for sharing his time and allowing me to speak on this issue.

The Bill aims to introduce a system of administrative penalties for non-serious breaches of the original Act. This change would be a welcome development for Irish sea fisheries. In 2006, at the time of the introduction of the Sea Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction Act, protests were organised by fishermen across the country. They pointed out that the criminal system for fisheries offences that was implemented by the introduction of the 2006 Act was out of kilter with EU policy. The then Fianna Fáil-Progressive Democrats Government maintained it had no choice but to introduce criminal rather than administrative penalties on the advice of the Attorney General.

  7 o’clock

At present, Ireland is the only maritime jurisdiction in the EU without a system of administrative sanctions for some fishery offences. Instead, even minor breaches of regulations are dealt with by the courts. This is neither an efficient nor a fair way of encouraging compliance. In 2006, the Labour Party highlighted the unfairness of a system that could only resort to the courts. We argued that administrative fines already existed within the Irish legal system. During last night’s debate, many examples of this were highlighted, including the Road Traffic Act. In addition, in my own constituency of Wicklow, sanctions can be imposed under legislation for the misuse of quad bikes in the mountains.

As far back as October 2004, the then Labour Party leader, Deputy Pat Rabbitte, wrote to the then Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, asking him to outline the Government’s position on this matter. In his reply in December 2004, the Taoiseach stated: “There is already in our legislative code provision for the imposition of sanctions which arise in administrative proceedings”. He went on to cite examples of penalties imposed “by, for instance, the Stock Exchange, the Law Society and the Medical Council”. He concluded by stating that “with limited exceptions, our legislative code provides for confirmation, by the High Court, of such sanctions”.

The Labour Party is of the firm view that administrative penalties are constitutional. The response from the Taoiseach as far back as 2004 indicates the same belief. This amending Bill has noted that fixed penalty notices are widely used throughout the Statute Book, and their use is particularly appropriate in the context of fisheries. The Bill proposes to introduce an administrative sanction based on monetary fines, with a robust right of appeal to the District Court; this type of system has consistently been held to be within the remit of Article 37.1 of the Constitution.

It is hard to understand how a fixed penalty notice can apply on land but not at sea. There are certainly examples, in my experience, in which administrative sanctions have developed as part of an alternative approach — for example, by the Environmental Protection Agency, or by local authorities under the Planning Acts. It is not as if a new and unusual system is being proposed here.

[816]The second obstacle the Government quoted on this issue was that it was a legal impossibility at EU level to introduce a system of administrative sanctions. This is challenged by the views expressed by the European Commission and the European Parliament which, in November 2009, expressly called for administrative sanctions.

It is clear from the strong protests in 2006 and recent representations from the fishing industry that fishermen want administrative sanctions. Much more significantly, such administrative sanctions would be welcomed by the fishery protection services. The Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority, which is charged with enforcing this law, is in favour of administrative sanctions. I quote Mr. Peter Whelan of the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority when he spoke at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Food last July:

This shows exactly how developed the argument is. He went on to state:

It seems there could be a sophisticated approach in developing a compliance strategy that includes administrative sanctions as a matter of course, if there was the political will to do so.

Ireland stands alone in the EU on this issue and remains the only EU member that does not have such a scheme. In recent years, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and England and Wales have all introduced administrative sanctions. One can see the argument that it delivers efficiency and reduces costs. It removes uncertainty and ensures there is a further weapon in the armoury of the sea fishery protection services.

While I welcome this Bill and its aim to introduce a mechanism that allows a non-court option for certain breaches, I must consider the question of enforcement. Just as there is an issue with enforcement of traffic-related fines across the Border, there may be an issue with ensuring compliance by foreign vessels. This point was raised yesterday evening by Deputy Sheahan, and it should be considered again on Committee Stage.

The proposal that has been outlined by Fine Gael seems to be a modernising approach which regrettably does not find favour with the Government. This is a pity because it seems there are ways of fleshing out the Bill on Committee Stage if the Government is willing to accept it in principle. Perhaps it is a lack of confidence, or perhaps it just does not want the bother, but there is definitely a resistance towards accepting Private Members’ motions and Bills. I can think of a number of Bills that have been produced by the Joint Committee on Climate Change and Energy Security which are gathering dust. It is not that there are flaws in the legislation; [817]the problem is within the Government itself. There is not the confidence or assurance to take the best of what is offered by the Opposition, often after a considerable amount of time. In this instance, the Bill has been on the Order Paper since last year, so it is not as if there has not been time to give it full scrutiny.

I welcome the publication of this Bill and I urge cross-party support for its provisions. The decision, obviously, will be taken by way of a vote through which the Government can determine the future of this Bill. However, it seems to me shortsighted that we cannot fully debate and go through all Stages of such a progressive piece of legislation.

Deputy Thomas Byrne: Information on Thomas Byrne  Zoom on Thomas Byrne  I wish to share my time with Deputies Dooley, Kenneally, Kelly and O’Brien.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Brendan Howlin  Zoom on Brendan Howlin  Is that agreed? Agreed.

Deputy Thomas Byrne: Information on Thomas Byrne  Zoom on Thomas Byrne  It gives me great pleasure as a Fianna Fáil backbencher from the class of 2007 to speak, at the request of the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Seán Connick, on the occasion of the first Private Members’ business being taken by him. We on the Fianna Fáil backbenches are all conscious of the great honour of his appointment and are proud of him. Long before he was appointed as Minister of State to the Department, Deputy Connick demonstrated immense regard, respect and dedication to the fishing industry. It is no surprise, therefore, that he is the latest in a long line of Wexford fisheries Ministers. His new job is important to the economy. The fact he represents us at European level, where many of the important decisions are taken, leads me to suggest he should have full Cabinet status. That would be a big bonus for the south east. However, that is a matter not for me but for a higher authority. I wish him well. He has shown great commitment to this industry, as evidenced by his speech last night.

The fishing industry is of great importance to the country, but not so important in my constituency of Meath East, which has only approximately 200 ft of coastline in the Gormanston area, probably the shortest coastline of any constituency. I welcome the fact the Bill put forward by Fine Gael is well intentioned. On-the-spot fines and administrative sanctions might suit our fishermen if caught doing something they should not be doing. It is important that we remember that is the issue behind this Bill. Our objective is to save the fishing stock, but the Bill and its terms, as set out by Fine Gael, would apply to all fishermen, not just our own, in the waters where it would be applied. In some way, that would be like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

The objectives the Minister of State has set out in response to this Bill, in terms of protecting our fish stock, are of important national interest. His proposals go beyond the interests of the fishermen. The fishermen are an important part of the economy, but it is the overall national interest that must take precedence, irrespective of the interests of important interest groups like the fishermen. In the overall national interest, the Minister of State has adopted a tough and consistent policy towards illegalities in the practice of fishing in order to save stocks of what is a healthy product for the rest of the country. I wish the Minister of State well and believe he is right to oppose this Bill. However, perhaps work could be done to resolve the issue further down the line. Deputy Kenneally probably has some ideas in that regard because his constituency has a more important fishing industry than mine.

Deputy Timmy Dooley: Information on Tim Dooley  Zoom on Tim Dooley  I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. Although I come from a coastal county where fishing is not at a level associated with the constituency of the Minister of State or other constituencies around the coastline, it is still an important feature of economic life there. I wish to be associated with the positive remarks Deputy Byrne made [818]on the appointment of Deputy Connick as a Minister of State. In his time on the backbenches he has shown a determination and willingness to take on difficult issues. Irrespective of the Department to which he is attached, he brings a level of freshness to our entire debate. His attitude and approach generally is to challenge issues and widely held views. I know he would not reject this Bill just for the sake of rejecting it or because his officials advised him to, but that he would have taken time to study it and its implications for the fishing industry. I am confident, based on the submission he made here yesterday, that his response is well thought out and based on his knowledge and understanding of the facts.

There is little doubt that the conservation of fish stocks is vital. We all recognise that despite the old adage that something is as plentiful as the fish in the sea, is no longer the case. We have seen a considerable decline in our fish stocks. In order to have an effective conservation policy, we must have an effective method of policing it. Penalties are very much part of that. The Opposition recognises that our fish stocks are at historically low levels. We need to strengthen rather than weaken the resolve to protect our stocks.

The Minister of State has outlined clearly that the Bill could introduce low fines for significant offences, which would promote illegal activity. I believe it is the intention of the proposers of the Bill to try to assist smaller fishermen, who would be the focus of all our intentions. However, they should be aware that anything that might be done to assist smaller fishermen might, ultimately, leave the back door open for larger fishermen who might, through a weakening of the situation benefit to a point that would make it easier for them to continue or develop an illegal practice. This concern is at the heart of our opposition to the Bill.

Deputy Byrne pointed out that it is not just about protecting fishing stocks. We protect them for a reason. There is a strong, viable economic dividend to our fishing industry and in the region of 11,000 jobs are associated with it. These are jobs in rural communities, areas where it is difficult to encourage foreign direct investment and where we do not find the multinationals or have a presence of the IDA type supported companies. The fishing industry is vital for these areas. I understand the industry contributes in the region of €780 million to our national economy in 2008. This clearly underpins the necessity to protect our fishing stocks. I have every confidence the Minister of State is attempting to protect the fishing culture in our rural communities and the importance it brings from the economic perspective. At the same time, it is important there are effective controls but that these are not overly burdensome, particularly on smaller fishermen.

We all recognise that while we have vast fishing grounds around our coast, there are bigger players from other nations, particularly Spain. We would not want to undermine the sanctions that prevent the predatory practices of fishermen from those nations while making an effort to assist those we want to help. I would not want to see a situation where we set out to assist a vulnerable group, but ultimately open up a facility for the larger predators to break the law, damage fish stocks and face only weak sanctions. That would not be in the interest of either the economic component of the industry or its future development.

I compliment the Minister of State on his approach and wish him well in his ongoing discussions and negotiations at European level. Those negotiations and general fishing policy are very much part of a combined effort through the European Union. He has a very difficult job to do but, as the Leas-Cheann Comhairle will be aware, he has the skills, tenacity and the mettle to deliver for fishermen in Ireland.

Deputy Brendan Kenneally: Information on Brendan Kenneally  Zoom on Brendan Kenneally  This is the first opportunity I have had publicly to congratulate Deputy Connick on his promotion to the office of Minister of State with responsibility for fisheries. I am aware from dealings I have had with the Minister of State previously that he [819]has a great interest in this area. Our constituencies are divided from each other by the Waterford estuary but there is a ferry link between them. We share many common interests in the fisheries area and the Minister has great knowledge of what is required. I wish him well with his portfolio.

I have some sympathy with the proposals in the Private Members’ Bill brought forward by Deputy Jim O’Keeffe. During the passage of the Sea Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction Act 2006 through the Oireachtas, I was my party’s spokesperson in the Seanad on marine and fisheries matters. It would be hypocritical of me to take a totally different line from the one I took on that occasion, and I will not do that. Therefore, I see merit in what is being proposed. I believe in administrative sanctions and that they should be introduced. They could be introduced. However, I will discuss that later.

Deputy Jim O’Keeffe: Information on Jim O'Keeffe  Zoom on Jim O'Keeffe  Will the Deputy vote for the Bill?

Deputy Brendan Kenneally: Information on Brendan Kenneally  Zoom on Brendan Kenneally  The problem is that this Bill is not sufficiently specific. One of the problems I envisage is similar to what Deputy Dooley just mentioned. My concern has always been for the smaller fishermen. I do not mean smaller in stature, but in fishing capability. The bigger operators out at sea are the people who have always done the damage. I am afraid the Bill as drafted will not be enough of a deterrent to the fishermen who are causing problems for fishery stocks, and all of us have an idea who they are. They should not get off the hook in any way and I believe that might happen with this legislation, well-intentioned as it is. It is the other fishermen whose concerns must be addressed.

I did not have a great deal of time to prepare for this debate but I saw some figures in an EU report from a number of years ago about average fines. The average fine for fishing without a licence in Spain was €1,463, while in Ireland it was €21,400. The joint committee dealing with communications, the marine and natural resources of the last Dáil held much debate on this issue. One of the contributors to that debate stated that the average fine for a log book offence in Denmark was €393 while in Ireland it was €8,455. The average fine in the UK for fishing for species subject to prohibition was €2,328, while in Ireland it was €23,125. It is important to point out that while the Spanish and UK vessels are fishing side by side in the same waters with our fishing vessels, different penalties are being imposed for identical offences. Unfortunately, the law is not equal across all EU fishing nations and I believe that, as a consequence of the legislation we passed previously, the imbalance might now be greater. Ireland is the only maritime country in the EU to rely solely on criminal sanctions. I believe the UK was the last of the other countries to introduce administrative sanctions.

Deputy Jim O’Keeffe: Information on Jim O'Keeffe  Zoom on Jim O'Keeffe  Was it wrong to do so?

Deputy Brendan Kenneally: Information on Brendan Kenneally  Zoom on Brendan Kenneally  I am a supporter of administrative sanctions but previously we were told this could not be done. I read the Minister of State’s speech last night with interest. His tone was different from what previous fisheries Ministers said in the past. He said: “The Irish legal system, in principle, permits the operation of a fixed penalty notice system in respect of minor penalties which afford the person an opportunity of paying the fixed penalty and avoiding criminal prosecution. Under such a system, fines are only imposed where they are accepted, and if a person wishes to dispute the alleged offence, then the matter is tried by a court.” I agree with him. I do not know if the change in tone from what fisheries Ministers said in the past is due to something I stumbled upon some time ago, a by-law of the Southern Regional Fisheries Board. It was Statutory Instrument No. 293, but I am not sure of what year. Basically, that by-law permitted administrative sanctions, so there are administrative sanctions [820]in the fisheries sector. That by-law was approved by the Attorney General. For that reason, I could never understand why we could not introduce administrative sanctions.

Deputy Jim O’Keeffe: Information on Jim O'Keeffe  Zoom on Jim O'Keeffe  Of course we could. We have had them for 50 years.

Deputy Brendan Kenneally: Information on Brendan Kenneally  Zoom on Brendan Kenneally  We should change our legislation with regard to current offences. It has been suggested that this would mean introducing new offences, but I have no wish to see that. I believe some of the sanctions that apply to current offences should be changed. They are too draconian.

The Fine Gael Bill would allow French, Spanish and other boats fishing in our waters to get off lightly.

Deputy Jim O’Keeffe: Information on Jim O'Keeffe  Zoom on Jim O'Keeffe  Why? Has the Deputy read the Bill?

Deputy Brendan Kenneally: Information on Brendan Kenneally  Zoom on Brendan Kenneally  I looked at the Bill and the wording is not tight enough. That is the problem. The Deputy will not succeed in what he is trying to achieve in the Bill. For that reason I will not be able to support it.

Part of the reason there are problems is that most of the fishermen who are targeted for illegal fishing are the smaller operators who fish closer to shore. We go after the easy target. One could probably say that about enforcement in other walks of life as well, but it is a fact. I recall Commodore Lynch appearing before the committee I mentioned earlier on 12 October 2005. I related an incident to him that had occurred shortly before that in Portally Cove near Dunmore East in my constituency. A person was hauling lobster pots, quite legally. The Southern Regional Fisheries Board vessel came alongside to check him out. That was quite correct; the vessel was only doing its job. However, there was a naval vessel there as well. When I put the matter to Commodore Lynch, he replied that if the Naval Service is called on to assist, it will come inshore to help. It is surely overkill to have a Naval Service vessel coming to support fisheries officers in a case where there is only one person hauling lobster pots. It would be far better employed out at sea catching the real culprits who are doing the real damage and causing problems for our fishing industry.

Some of these large vessels are huge. One of those boats probably does as much damage as 100 smaller vessels, yet it is the smaller vessels that are relentlessly pursued. If I had sufficient time, I had intended to relate a couple of instances where fishermen were prosecuted for minor offences. They went into court with clean records but ended up with criminal records. For that reason, we must change this.

Deputy Jim O’Keeffe: Information on Jim O'Keeffe  Zoom on Jim O'Keeffe  That is what the Bill does.

Deputy Brendan Kenneally: Information on Brendan Kenneally  Zoom on Brendan Kenneally  Unfortunately, it does not do that.

Deputy Peter Kelly: Information on Peter Kelly  Zoom on Peter Kelly  I am fully committed to supporting Ireland’s fishing industry which delivers employment and economic activity to many of the regions where there are few alterative income opportunities. We all want to see a strong and prosperous fishing industry in Ireland.

The Bill proposes a new system of administrative sanctions for fisheries offences. According to Fine Gael, this Bill will establish a much improved enforcement mechanism for less serious fisheries infractions, promote a greater culture of compliance and reduce administrative and other costs for the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority and fishermen alike.

The Irish sea fisheries sector is almost totally dependent on healthy fish stocks in Ireland’s 200 mile exclusive fisheries zone. As the House will be aware, fish stocks in our zone are at [821]historically low levels. It is essential we take whatever measures are necessary to reverse this decline in fish stocks. Unfortunately, this Bill would have the opposite effect.

The Minister of State for fisheries, Deputy Connick, made clear in the Dáil yesterday that he did not believe this Bill would increase fish stocks. He explained it could result in increasing the level of illegal fishing and further drive down fish stocks, leading to a collapse of many of the key commercial stocks around the coast on which our fishing industry relies heavily. He made clear that this Bill could have two possible outcomes, neither of which would protect fish stocks. The first possibility would be that this new Bill could introduce low fines which would do little to deter illegal activity. It could also result in undue attention being paid to minor offences as opposed to channelling the little resources we have into dealing with the major offenders.

There are a number of flaws with the Bill. It would remove the current protections in place in Irish legislation against illegal fishing and could potentially result in illegal landings in Ireland’s 200 mile zone.

Deputy Jim O’Keeffe: Information on Jim O'Keeffe  Zoom on Jim O'Keeffe  Rubbish.

Deputy Peter Kelly: Information on Peter Kelly  Zoom on Peter Kelly  Over recent years we have seen a significant decline in quotas and this is a matter of urgency. The Minister of State made clear that he is committed to supporting changes in the Common Fisheries Policy that strengthen that policy and deliver better management and conservation methods for our fisheries.

The Minister of State, Deputy Connick, recently set out Ireland’s priorities for reform of the Common Fisheries Policy at a meeting of fisheries ministers in Spain. The meeting discussed the differing views and proposals put forward by member states. Some of Ireland’s priorities for the new Common Fisheries Policy are a new focus on addressing the discarding of fish at sea, the retention of a management system based on national quotas supported by increased flexibility, a complex rejection of the mandatory privatisation of fish quotas or the international trading of fish quotes, and new measures to develop an environmental and economically sustainable aquaculture sector which could reduce our dependence on imported products.

To stem the decline in fish stocks, it is essential we bring in improved conservation measures and tackle illegal fishing by fleets in our waters. This will be done through reform of the Common Fisheries Policy. The decline in fish stocks is clearly a European issue and actions to address this and ensure sustainable fishing practices must be taken at the European Council.

I do not believe this Bill will address illegal fishing in our waters and lead to increased stock levels. There is a risk it will damage our stock levels further and bring in a new culture of non-compliance. In fact, this Bill could have a regressive effect on the fishing industry.

Since 1959, Ireland has applied criminal law in fisheries matters and, since our membership of the European Community, Ireland has applied the criminal law in the enforcement of fisheries policies. In the case of most fisheries offences, the EU Common Fisheries Policy requires that the penalties must be effective, a deterrent and dissuasive, and must involve depriving the wrongdoer of the benefit of his or her actions. This is necessary to protect fish stocks from illegal fishing. The legal advice, I believe, is that imposing sanctions such as these set out in the Bill would undermine the existing legislative framework. The new EU fisheries control regulation introduces a new and common approach to fisheries regulation with the introduction for the first time of a penalty points system. That system is completely different from what is proposed in the Bill.

The Bill would have a negative impact on the industry in terms of future reducing stock levels through increased illegal activity in our waters and this would certainly be bad news for the 11,000 employed in the industry.

[822]Deputy Darragh O’Brien: Information on Darragh O'Brien  Zoom on Darragh O'Brien  I congratulate the Minister of State, Deputy Connick on his elevation to his new role. It is a pity he has just left the Chamber. While the senior Minister, Deputy Smith is present, I take this opportunity to appeal to him to see his way to assisting Fingal County Council on funding for maintaining the harbours in Balbriggan, Skerries, Rush and Loughshinny, but especially Balbriggan and Skerries. My area, Dublin North, has a long-standing heritage in fishing and, as with every fleet, it has suffered. Any assistance the Minister can give will be greatly appreciated in Fingal.

Deputy Jim O’Keeffe: Information on Jim O'Keeffe  Zoom on Jim O'Keeffe  I will put that in the Bill if Deputy O’Brien will support it.

Deputy Darragh O’Brien: Information on Darragh O'Brien  Zoom on Darragh O'Brien  I will talk to Deputy Jim O’Keeffe later.

(Interruptions).

Deputy Darragh O’Brien: Information on Darragh O'Brien  Zoom on Darragh O'Brien  The Bill proposes a new system of administrative sanctions for fisheries offences. The Fine Gael Bill claims to establish a much improved enforcement mechanism for less serious fisheries infractions, promote a greater culture of compliance and reduce administrative and other costs for the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority and fishermen alike.

Over recent years we have seen a significant decline in quotas. Scientific evidence shows that many fish stocks important to Irish fishermen have declined to dangerously low levels. It is the health of these stocks which ultimately determines the economic viability of this industry and it must be our priority when considering any new legislation.

The issue of how and at what level sanctions should be applied has been an issue with the fishing industry since fish stocks declined and quotas began to be reduced and more strictly implemented. It is also an issue which has been considered by the Government on many occasions. Under EU law, Ireland is required to have an enforcement system which is effective and dissuasively proportionate, and any failure in this regard could result in a large financial penalties being imposed on the State and the Irish taxpayer, as happened to France in 2005 when it was fined €20 million by the EU. It is of national importance that an appropriate regime is in place to protect fish stocks from any illegal fishing in Ireland’s 200 mile exclusive fisheries zone. The Government is committed to supporting changes to the Common Fisheries Policy that strengthen that policy and deliver better management and conservation methods for our fisheries which would have a positive impact on fish stock levels in the medium to long term.

I do not believe this Bill will protect against illegal fishing and may, in fact, have a number of negative effects. There are two potential effects of this Bill. It could introduce low fines for significant offences resulting in increased illegal landings.

Deputy Jim O’Keeffe: Information on Jim O'Keeffe  Zoom on Jim O'Keeffe  Not so.

Deputy Darragh O’Brien: Information on Darragh O'Brien  Zoom on Darragh O'Brien  The other possibility is that it would divert too much attention to a new tier of minor offences and distract from the work being done to prosecute the major offenders. The Bill does not provide the necessary measures to regulate the fishing industry and would not give a reasonable level of confidence that illegal fishing would not be rewarded.

The advice of successive Attorneys General has been that the imposition of such sanctions would undermine the existing legislative framework. Since 1959, successive Irish Governments have applied criminal law in fisheries matters and, since our membership of the European Community, Ireland has applied criminal law in the enforcement of fisheries policy. Ireland does this to protect the fish stocks in our zone on which our 2,000-strong vessel fishing fleet is dependent. The Sea-Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction Act 2006 sets down the maximum [823]financial fines that may be applied and it is a matter for a judge to determine the appropriate fine, if any, taking into account specifics in the case. The proposed fixed penalty notice would most likely lead to a significant increase in illegal fishing by fleets in our waters and put increased pressure on our stocks. Alongside this, it would jeopardise an important industry that generates 11,000 jobs and contributed almost €800 million to the economy in 2008.

I do not support this Bill. I believe the proposals put forward will not act as a sufficient deterrent to illegal landings and, instead, our limited resources will be diverted into dealing with new minor offences. The potential impact, if it were introduced, would be negative for the conservation of fish stocks or for the coastal communities depending on fishing. It would also put at risk Ireland’s obligation under EU law to ensure an effective and dissuasive enforcement system is in place.

Deputy P. J. Sheehan: Information on P. J. Sheehan  Zoom on P. J. Sheehan  The Deputy should not be criminalising his skippers.

Deputy Joe McHugh: Information on Joe McHugh  Zoom on Joe McHugh  I wish to share my time with Deputies Breen, Deasy, McGinley, Terence Flanagan, Ring and Sheehan.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Brendan Howlin  Zoom on Brendan Howlin  Agreed.

Deputy Joe McHugh: Information on Joe McHugh  Zoom on Joe McHugh  It will be very difficult to articulate a counter-argument after the impressive contribution from the maritime county of Longford by Deputy Peter Kelly. It is a sign of the quality of this debate that people are being rolled out to defend the indefensible. I was remiss not to mention Dublin North also. I congratulate Deputies Jim O’Keeffe and Creed for working on this issue over a long time and their work is the result of much time and research.

The Minister will be aware of the work involved in fishing. A fisherman must know how to navigate, he endures intermittent sleep patterns while searching for fish and he must also manage a business. If his catch is four or five kilos overweight, he could end up with a criminal prosecution. That is the weight of pressure on these men. A psychological issue arises whereby the fishing community feels discriminated against. Its members do not believe there is a level playing pitch. They look at our neighbours in the European Union, across the water in the United Kingdom and at the administrative sanctions in force in Northern Ireland.

We must consider our role within the North-South Ministerial Council. Northern Ireland has an administrative and judicial system under devolved government and led by Mr. Ford of the Alliance Party. I suggest we should consider an integrated marine policy under the mechanism of the Good Friday Agreement. Integrated marine policy is one of the aspects of the Good Friday Agreement and the St. Andrews Agreement.

This is a maritime country, an island nation. Every day, fishermen are throwing perfectly good fish overboard, as a result of the nonsense rules introduced for small fishermen.

Deputy P. J. Sheehan: Information on P. J. Sheehan  Zoom on P. J. Sheehan  Is that conservation?

Deputy Joe McHugh: Information on Joe McHugh  Zoom on Joe McHugh  Perfectly good hake, monkfish and white fish are being thrown overboard. This is an issue of morality. Members of the House and the Government should consider the type of sanctions we have introduced. Our fishermen who gather fish in their nets inadvertently would prefer to take that fish home and give them away for free. It is a national disgrace. It is also a disgrace for Deputies from County Longford and those who come into this House with no knowledge of the maritime coastal communities and no knowledge of what is happening on a daily basis.

[824]The Government should put its hands up and accept there is an issue being highlighted on this side of the House. We must bring the maritime community on-side. We must look at all aspects of the industry and try to bring the fishermen back. We have lost our fishing community through sanctions that are not workable. The common-sense argument being articulated on this side of the House is that administrative sanctions are preferable to giving fishermen a criminal record.

Deputy Pat Breen: Information on Pat Breen  Zoom on Pat Breen  I compliment Deputies Jim O’Keeffe and Creed for drafting this Bill. As Deputy McHugh said, a lot of time has gone into drafting this Bill. Coming from Cork South-West, both Deputy O’Keeffe and his colleague, Deputy Sheehan, are very aware of the concerns of fishermen. The purpose of the Bill is to introduce fixed penalty notices or on-the-spot fines for minor fishing offences. Some Government Deputies were attempting to interpret this Bill in a different way because they do not wish to vote for it.

Ireland is one of the few countries that does not have a combined system of on-the-spot fines and criminal sanctions. As Deputy McHugh said, fishermen feel that they are forgotten. Generations of people living along the coastal areas have relied on fishing for their livelihoods. However, competition, restrictions and quotas have forced many fishermen to moor their boats permanently. Those who remain in the industry feel they are being hounded by restriction and regulation. This is a very good Bill which will harmonise our law with the European Union in the way infringements are sanctioned. The Bill provides for the introduction of a points system similar to that which applies in many other countries.

I am from County Clare and I wish to talk about the fishing industry in my county. While fishing is not the most important industry in the region, it is important to the many fishermen who live in the coastal villages from the cliffs of Moher, Liscannor and all the way down to Quilty, Carrigaholt, Dunbeg and various other small villages. The main types of fishing in County Clare are for crab and lobster and these account for the biggest landings. A total of 90% of the crab and lobster catches are exported to France and Spain. Our local fishermen in County Clare have undertaken significant work in lobster management and conservation with courses funded by BIM and the Government. The problem with lobster and crab fishing is that prices have fallen substantially. A few months ago, lobster and crab fetched €18 per kilo while today the price is down to €10 per kilo. Most fishermen will say they cannot make a living out of those prices. Cheap lobster and crab is being imported into Europe from the United States and Canada to be processed here as if it were an EU product. Fishermen’s incomes must be put back on line again.

Deputy O’Keeffe’s Bill introduces a new system which will modernise and monitor all vessels, in that satellite-based electronic log book systems on board vessels over 12 m will report at regular intervals to centralised bases in each member state. Landings for the first sale of fish must be reported into the system and each member state will have to cross-check to ensure the accuracy of the information. Recreational fishing will be introduced into the monitoring system for the first time.

I am disappointed that the Minister of State, Deputy Connick, has left the Chamber. He got a lot of praise from his Fianna Fáil colleagues. If Deputy Connick wants to make a good name for himself as a fisheries Minister, he should support this Bill. It is essential to have a level playing pitch across Europe so that the same system of control applies to Irish and foreign vessels operating in our waters.

Deputy John Deasy: Information on John Deasy  Zoom on John Deasy  This Bill has brought to my mind the fishing industry in Waterford or what is left of it. I could not find any definitive figures for the number of people in County [825]Waterford or nationally who are making a living from the sea. I did some research and found some reports done over the past ten years which give an idea of what has happened to the industry generally. In 1999 the report, the National Investment Priorities for the Irish Seafood Industry 2000-2006, prepared by the national strategy review group on the Common Fisheries Policy, stated the industry, comprising fishing, aquaculture, processing and ancillary sectors, employed 15,832 people directly between full-time and part-time jobs. In 2003, a report from EUROSTAT and the Directorate-General for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries put employment at 10,584 for the entire sector including fishing, aquaculture, processing and ancillary sectors, a reduction of 5,000 jobs since the 1999 report. In 2006, a Marine Institute report, Sea Change, estimated direct and indirect employment in the industry stood at 5,960.

According to three government-sponsored reports, 10,000 direct and indirect jobs have been lost in seven years in the fishing industry. Bord Iascaigh Mhara, BIM, figures suggest the numbers working on fishing vessels is actually down to 2,100 people.

The industry has been obliterated since Fianna Fáil came to power 13 years ago. I suggest for next year’s census, the occupational grouping, “Farming, fishing and forestry” is separated so a clear picture of how many fishermen are left can be garnered. I have no great expectation there will be much of an improvement on the figures I have just given.

One reason it has become unattractive to remain in fishing is that fishermen face excessive criminal sanctions and prosecutions for minor offences and breaches of fishing quotas. In County Waterford, there was the historical issue of how fishermen were treated in the recent past by those who were meant to be responsible for enforcing the law. It is only 11 years ago that three officials from the southern fisheries board were dismissed from their posts after several inquiries. For 20 years, there had been allegations of corrupt activities on the part of several senior fisheries officers in the board. Salmon fishermen fishing from Wexford through Waterford to Ballycotton were subject to a campaign of intimidation and, on occasions, violence by these officials. Several fishermen were wrongly sent to prison, many were assaulted and dozens lost their licences and were never able to make a living again from fishing.

The Minister of State, Deputy Seán Connick, must consider what has happened to the fishing industry under Fianna Fáil’s watch. The Government needs to incentivise people to return to making a living from the sea instead of making it harder by prosecuting them for minor fisheries offences. Most of the fishermen in my county are already gone. The least the Government can do is introduce a reasonable regime of administrative sanctions that will make it bearable for those remaining fishermen.

Deputy Dinny McGinley: Information on Dinny McGinley  Zoom on Dinny McGinley  I welcome the introduction of the Sea Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction (Fixed Penalty Notice) (Amendment) Bill 2009. It was necessitated because of some of the draconian measures incorporated in the Sea Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction Act 2006 such as boats tied up or gear and catches confiscated for minor infringements. When first introduced, the legislation contained a provision giving the Naval Service the power to fire upon our fishing fleet. Thankfully, this measure was dropped along with some others.

However, the one measure that fishermen believe adds insult to injury is that a minor infringement of fishing regulations can be looked upon as a criminal act. This has wider implications for those in the industry who may be seeking other employment positions, for example, in the Garda or the Army, because having a criminal record means one is disbarred from applying. Having a record also disbars one from being allowed go to the United States of America seeking work.

In 2006, Fine Gael opposed these measures with our then spokesperson, Deputy John Perry, promising the Bill’s reform in the party’s 2007 general election manifesto. I congratulate [826]Deputy Jim O’Keeffe on introducing this reasonable, responsible and well thought out Bill. One would expect such from someone with a legal professional background and knowledge of the fishing industry.

Bunbeg, County Donegal, where I grew up, was once a fishing village with up to as many as 40 half-deckers operating out of its port and maintaining the livelihoods of 130 families in the parish. In the winter months each boat was involved in the herring fisheries, bringing in 30 crans or 40 crans per boat, enough to keep four families from the emigrant ship. In the summer, the half-deckers worked the salmon fisheries. This kept the community going for many generations since the Famine.

Today, three punts operate out of Bunbeg port and are only allowed to fish some lobster and crab. As Deputy Pat Breen said, it is hardly worth it for a boat to go out for lobster because its price has collapsed. They also have to compete with imports from the United States and Canada, some of which are so undersized they would not be allowed to be fished here.

This is repeated in other coastal communities in Donegal, particularly on the islands such as Tory and Árainn Mhór. The state of the fishing industry was the county’s economic barometer. In Killybegs, the entire fleet, worth €500 million, is tied up from February until October every year with no income. I agree with Deputy John Deasy that the industry is a pale shadow of what it was. The Fianna Fáil-led Governments over the past 13 years have presided over the death of the fishing industry in peripheral areas along the western seaboard. The Government could at least amend the legislation and decriminalise some of the infringements in the 2006 Act.

Deputy Terence Flanagan: Information on Terence Flanagan  Zoom on Terence Flanagan  I thank Deputies Jim O’Keeffe and Michael Creed for bringing forward this important legislation. Obviously much work has gone into putting it together. It seeks to correct the controversial Sea Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction Act 2006 whose measures are unjust and unfair and which criminalises fishermen for minor technical breaches of fishing quotas. Rather than making fishermen criminals, the Fine Gael Bill seeks simply to fine them.

We realise how important the Irish seafood industry is to the country. More than 11,000 people are employed in the industry, which contributes more than €0.75 billion to the economy every year.

  8 o’clock

The Minister will be aware of the many other problems faced by fishermen on a daily basis apart from the fear of being criminalised by over-fishing. I refer to the high cost of fuel, a real issue among fishermen in my constituency, where prices have risen by at least 50% in recent years. I refer to the decline in Irish fish prices, restrictive EU fishing quotas and depleting fishing stocks. Fishermen have enough to contend with on a daily basis every time they leave port without reference to this serious issue. The proposed legislation is humane. The lives and livelihoods of ordinary people are affected and they must be preserved.

Howth Harbour, where there is a proud tradition of fishing, is in my constituency of Dublin North-East. Fishermen are not impressed with the regulator, the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority, which is treating them with contempt. There is a sour and poisonous relationship between fishermen and the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority. Trust must be introduced into the equation. This is why Deputies Creed and O’Keeffe should be commended for introducing this legislation to try to build bridges between the regulator and fishermen. Fishermen cannot continue given the way things are going at present. To a certain extent, the Minister has sold the fishermen down the Swanee. However, the Minister has an opportunity tonight to correct the [827]record, to put things right and to fine fishermen rather than make criminals out of them. I trust the Minister will listen to and take note of what we have said on this side of the House.

Deputy Michael Ring: Information on Michael Ring  Zoom on Michael Ring  I compliment Deputies O’Keeffe and Creed for introducing the Bill to the Dáil. I call on the Government to accept it at this late stage and to make the necessary amendments on Committee Stage. It is wrong that if small fishermen make a mistake, they and their family members could be regarded as criminals if they are caught over-fishing and charged. As Deputy McGinley and other speakers have stated, they could have a criminal record for the remainder of their lives.

I wish to put on record certain matters relating to the west. Fishing was a very lively industry at one time. However, now it is a tourism attraction because the Fianna Fáil Government has destroyed the industry. It has sold it down the drain to Europe over the years. It is outrageous that there are Spanish boats coming into our areas, taking our fish out of the country and making money on it.

I compliment Deputy John Perry who, on a previous occasion, introduced a good policy in respect of fishing. He travelled to Blacksod Bay, Mayo, Donegal and throughout the country to the south east. He met fishermen, listened to them and he realised what they sought. His policy could have worked.

I compliment my colleague, the man that got the pier extension for Darby’s Point. Only for my colleague, the pier in Darby’s Point would not have been completed in 1994. He continued to raise the matter in the Dáil when I was not here to do so myself. He delivered a result and I compliment Deputy Sheehan on the record tonight in this regard.

Deputy P. J. Sheehan: Information on P. J. Sheehan  Zoom on P. J. Sheehan  Well done.

Deputy Michael Ring: Information on Michael Ring  Zoom on Michael Ring  Fishing is a difficult, hard business and one in which there should be more people working. This country is in recession and if we are to get it up and running again it will require the development of agriculture and fisheries to create employment and jobs. When we receive European regulations we go ten times further in implementing them than every other country. We have regulated our fishermen out of business and we have sold them down the drain in the way in which we have given in at European level. This has happened because we have not had a strong Minister in Europe to defend them, to fight for them and to keep them in the business. It is wrong that many more people could and should be in the industry or business but they are being sold down the drain.

Many families in the west made a living from fishing. There is much talk about the salmon industry. Now it appears the problems are nothing to do with the amount of fish but relate to climate issues. Apparently, that is the reason the fish are not coming into the country.

Deputy Dinny McGinley: Information on Dinny McGinley  Zoom on Dinny McGinley  Hear, hear.

Deputy Michael Ring: Information on Michael Ring  Zoom on Michael Ring  For years we were told it was because fishermen were robbing and poaching but that is not happening. It is because we did nothing to protect our climate or our seas. We simply kept giving more and more away to the Spanish because it had better Ministers in Europe than we had.

Fianna Fáil has always maintained it is the rural party. However, it let down the fishermen, the farmers and the country and it has let us down in Europe because it did not negotiate for us.

Deputy P. J. Sheehan: Information on P. J. Sheehan  Zoom on P. J. Sheehan  I congratulate my constituency colleague, Deputy Jim O’Keeffe, and Deputy Michael Creed for introducing this necessary reform to the House.

Deputy Michael Ring: Information on Michael Ring  Zoom on Michael Ring  Hear, hear.

[828]Deputy P. J. Sheehan: Information on P. J. Sheehan  Zoom on P. J. Sheehan  In so doing, I condemn the Government for not introducing such reforms before now. I have raised this issue at every available opportunity since my election to the Dáil in 1981 and I have outlined the problems relating to the fishing industry during that period. I am disappointed at the response of the new Minister in his contribution to the debate. Up to now, I have heard the Attorney General used as an excuse for not amending the scheme in many replies to questions. However, the Minister maintains now that this measure would not be good for fishing stocks. This says a good deal about his concern for our fishermen. I refer to those who risk their lives in all weathers to provide food for us 24 hours per day, not on a nine to five basis as his ministerial colleague would wish, in view of his recent efforts to restrict the rescue services. I advise the new Minister that he should accept the Bill and I am very disappointed he is not in the House tonight to hear what we have to say.

Deputy Terence Flanagan: Information on Terence Flanagan  Zoom on Terence Flanagan  Hear, hear.

Deputy P. J. Sheehan: Information on P. J. Sheehan  Zoom on P. J. Sheehan  The legislation could be amended on Committee Stage. Regardless, as sure as God made little green apples, we will introduce this legislation from the other side of the House in a short time to come.

Deputy Terence Flanagan: Information on Terence Flanagan  Zoom on Terence Flanagan  Hear, hear.

Deputy P. J. Sheehan: Information on P. J. Sheehan  Zoom on P. J. Sheehan  If the Minister holds such strong views on this issue why does he not accept the Bill on Second Stage and come forward with amendments on Committee Stage, at which point he would still have a majority?

I hear complaints on a daily basis about the over-vigorous enforcement of regulations by officers of the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority, which has more than twice as many fisheries protection officers as the combined totals of the authorities in France and Spain. The laws in question were imposed by this Government, not by the EU. Every other country in the European Union is capable of administering these sanctions under administrative rules rather than in criminal courts.

Deputy Terence Flanagan: Information on Terence Flanagan  Zoom on Terence Flanagan  Hear, hear.

Deputy P. J. Sheehan: Information on P. J. Sheehan  Zoom on P. J. Sheehan  It is a pity the Minister did not apply these rules to the banks. Had he done so, some of them would not be hiding from Charlie Bird behind a couch in Boston. The Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority has two arms but its right hand acts differently from its left hand in dealing with food safety and fishermen. In an appearance before the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the authority stated it would prefer to use the administrative method for both arms.

The Minister should take cognisance of the remarks of the eminent lawyer and senior counsel, Dr. Gerard Hogan, in an appearance before the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to discuss the constitutionality of administrative sanctions which apply under the Sea-Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction Act 2006. His advice to the committee at the time was that Ireland is not correct in criminalising its trawler skippers because they might have an additional box or two of monkfish or cod in their catch. How can a trawler owner be responsible for whatever is in a net after two or three hours trawling the Atlantic ocean? In an effort towards conservation, such an owner is supposed to dump the fish back into the sea because he or she could face a criminal charge were the excess catch to be landed. What conservation efforts are served by dumping dead fish into the sea when half the world starves?

The Minister is lost at sea when operating this law of criminalisation. He is criminalising the trawler owners. They have been criminalised for the past ten years and cannot even travel to the United States because they have a criminal indictment against their names.

[829]When will the Minister abide by the advice the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Food received from Dr. Gerard Hogan? When will he put in place the necessary legislation to make all fisheries offences administrative rather than criminal in nature? The Minister ought not leave this as his legacy. He has not much time remaining and should do the right thing now.

I refer to all Members on the other side of the House who intend to vote against this Bill tonight. They ought not come near the fishing ports along our coast seeking votes after voting to make our fishermen criminals. The Government should look instead to its criminal banking friends. The largest fish landing port in the country is now Cork Airport which handles imports from France, the Faroe Islands, Iceland and China. The Minister must ensure common sense prevails before it is too late.

Deputies:  Hear, hear.

Deputy P. J. Sheehan: Information on P. J. Sheehan  Zoom on P. J. Sheehan  I call on the Government to accept Deputy Jim O’Keeffe’s Bill. The time is ripe to protect the fishing industry. The Minister must act before it is too late.

Deputies:  Hear, hear.

Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Deputy Brendan Smith): Information on Brendan Smith  Zoom on Brendan Smith  I acknowledge that the issue of controlling the activity of fishing vessels is of great interest and importance to Deputies. I also appreciate the work of Deputy Jim O’Keeffe in drafting the Bill, with the support of his colleague, Deputy Creed, and fully accept that it was done with a view to introducing a strengthened regime for the control of fishing activity. However, for the reasons I will set out, I am not convinced the Bill would have a positive impact on the management and control of fishing activity in Ireland’s 200-mile exclusive fisheries zone. Rather, it would risk having a significant adverse impact on the state of fish stocks in our zone, on which our fishing industry is totally dependent, and could introduce a new tier of minor bureaucratic offences. I will address some of the issues raised in the debate with a view to improving the understanding of the Government’s concern about the impact of the Bill and also answer some specific questions raised.

The legal position on administrative fines was set out clearly by the Minister of State, Deputy Connick. He explained that the Government, on the basis of its legal advice, could not implement the Bill in the way intended by Fine Gael and that if it were implemented in any other way, it would have adverse effects. Deputy Jim O’Keeffe has stressed that the Fine Gael Bill does not seek to introduce a system of administrative penalties but involves on-the-spot fines. In reality, such fines are criminal, not administrative sanctions. To make the case that the introduction of on-the-spot fines would decriminalise fishery offences is not correct. Where these fines apply, an offender has the option of denying the charge and fighting it in court. Under Irish law such fines are used for minor offences where a fixed penalty can be applied.

In the context of fishery infringements, penalties must be proportionate and, therefore, variable. It is not practical or suitable to provide for fixed penalties other than for the most minor offences. Such minor offences are subject to warnings by the Naval Service or the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority. My understanding of Deputy Jim O’Keeffe’s view is that the current warnings would remain in place and that these on-the-spot fines would apply to medium offences. The latter usually involve actions involving illegal fishing that confers financial benefit. The level of financial benefit for fishery offences is often significant and a value of much more than €1,000 would be easily achieved. If a vessel owner is prepared to risk illegal fishing, he or she is surely seeking a reasonable financial benefit.

Article 90 of the relevant EU regulation specifies the list of serious offences which includes not fulfilling the obligation to record and report catch or catch-related data. The provision covers a range of activities, including logbook reporting, reporting of sales and tampering with vessel monitoring systems. These are the types of offences usually prosecuted and I do not see [830]that there is scope to redefine such offences as minor in nature, particularly taking account of the European Union legislation. As advised, it is clear that administrative penalties or fixed penalty notices are not appropriate for offences where a significant financial reward may accrue to the offender, potentially in excess of the penalty imposed. Such offences must under the Constitution come before the courts. Therefore, the only legally acceptable approach would involve applying the provisions of the Fine Gael Bill to minor offences which currently are not prosecuted or are dealt with by means of a warning. In effect, accepting the Bill would require a new tier of offences which are currently not prosecuted to be created. This would have the effect of increasing the bureaucratic burden on the industry and diverting limited resources from the detection of serious offences to the administration of minor infringements.

The focus of the debate has not surprisingly been on the possible impact of the Bill on the fishing industry. However, any such scheme must apply to all vessels operating in Ireland’s 200-mile exclusive fisheries zone. These waters are some of the richest fishing grounds in the European Union and fished by vessels from a range of member states and also third countries, particularly Norway. As has been discussed during the debate, any regime put in place for on-the-spot fines must be equally applicable to all fishing activity engaged in by all countries and must be applied and be seen to be applied by the State authorities in an even-handed manner. The control and enforcement of fisheries rules inside Ireland’s exclusive fisheries zone present a substantial challenge for the State, even more so in today’s world where resources are limited. These limited resources must be used to deliver the maximum return in terms of effectiveness. I am concerned that the introduction of an on-the-spot fines system for minor offences which is all that could be permitted would substantially divert the resources of the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority. I am strongly committed to delivering strengthened and more effective controls across the European Union and, in particular, the promotion of a level playing field in control across member states. Ireland has, following hard work by successive Ministers with responsibility for fisheries, made substantial advances in delivering a level playing field in control. The new European Union electronic logbook will be introduced for all large fishing vessels operating in our waters in the coming weeks.

During the debate claims that the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority was unfairly targeting Irish vessels for controls were raised by several Deputies. Deputy Tom Sheahan set down the statistics for boardings and inspections in order to make the point. The Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority is an independent body in respect of its operational activities. However, in order to assist the debate I have asked it for information on certain of the issues raised. Some Deputies made reference to an unspecified case in which a file was purported to have been sent to the Director of Public Prosecutions in regard to the under-declaration of fish in the amount of 4 kg. This sounded strange and the authority has advised that it is not aware of any such case. Moreover, it assures me that it would not take a case in respect of such a small non-compliance issue, unless there were a number of other significant infringements arising in the same case and the over-fishing was relevant in proving these other suspected infringements.

Deputy Tom Sheahan suggested last night that there were fewer inspections carried out on Irish vessels than on foreign vessels. In 2009 there were 18,552 landings by Irish vessels, of which 11% were inspected in port by the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority. Of the 1,600 landings by foreign vessels, 46% were inspected in port.

Deputy John Perry: Information on John Perry  Zoom on John Perry  I propose to share time with Deputy Jim O’Keeffe.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on Brendan Howlin  Zoom on Brendan Howlin  That is agreed.

Deputy John Perry: Information on John Perry  Zoom on John Perry  I congratulate my Fine Gael Party colleagues, Deputies Jim O’Keeffe and Creed, for bringing forward this legislation. The Bill has been drafted to deal in a practical and sensible manner with sea fisheries offences. A fixed penalty system is the appropriate [831]enforcement response to minor breaches of sea fisheries law. Fisheries offences in Ireland are prosecuted under section 28 of the Sea-Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction Act 2006. The Act provides for stiff maximum penalties to be imposed for fisheries offences. Under its terms, almost all offences require the imposition of extremely serious penalties, even for non-serious offences.

Under the Common Fisheries Policy, there is a legal requirement that Ireland enforce an effective system of sanctions for dealing with breaches of Community law. There is sound scientific evidence showing that commercial fishing stocks in Irish waters are at historically low levels and that improved fisheries enforcement and control measures are required to ensure particular fish stocks do not collapse. During the Second Stage debate on the Sea-Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction Act 2006 I accepted the necessity for stiff penalties to control serious quota and environmental breaches. On the other hand, I strongly argued that the use of criminal procedures and penalties to control even minor breaches of technical regulations was the wrong way to go in respect of minor and technical offences.

This Bill recognises that serious quota breaches and environmental offences are appropriate targets for the full rigour of fisheries enforcement and no change in these tough enforcement provisions is proposed. The Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority indicated in its testimony in July 2009 before the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Food that there had been a huge shift towards compliance by the commercial fishing industry. The authority also confirmed that it would welcome the introduction of a system of administrative sanctions, as recommended by the European Commission. It is clear from the testimony of the authority that its preferred compliance strategy is to have graded steps towards enforcement and prosecution, ranging from warning letters, administration sanctions and penalty points to criminal penalties for the most serious offences.

The commercial fishing industry has responded in a significant and comprehensive way to the quota and environmental requirements of the Common Fisheries Policy. It is now time for the Government to respond in a sensible and constructive way to the new situation. The Fine Gael Bill is a timely and reasonable response to the new situation in the commercial fishing industry. It would provide a mechanism for keeping minor or technical infractions out of the courts. It would create a process to establish a fixed penalty approach to certain offences. This would have several advantages, including the promotion of a greater culture of compliance, reduced administrative costs as offences would be dealt with by administrative measures rather than through the courts and the faster conclusion of cases. It is high time the Government responded to the claim by the commercial sea fishermen and their representative bodies that they have been unfairly targeted with criminal penalties for minor breaches of fishing protection regulations. The current system of criminal penalties has left fishermen feeling marginalised and demoralised. They believe they are the only group in society unfairly targeted with serious penalties for minor offences.

The Fine Gael Bill provides a way out of the Government’s cul-de-sac approach. The matter has been debated for long enough. My good friend, Deputy P. J. Sheehan, has been the greatest advocate of the Bill’s approach. I ask the Minister to resolve a serious concern for coastal communities by taking on board the Fine Gael Bill to introduce administrative sanctions for minor fishing offences.

Deputy Jim O’Keeffe: Information on Jim O'Keeffe  Zoom on Jim O'Keeffe  I thank the 22 Members of the House who have contributed to this brief debate on my Bill.

“Criminal penalties ... should be reserved for persistent and extreme ‘criminal’ behaviour. For the rest, the imposition of administrative penalties ... would be a sufficient deterrent.” Those are not my words, but the words of the UK Prime Minister’s Strategy Unit’s 2004 report. [832] Following that report, the UK introduced a Bill exactly along the lines of my Bill, and regulations to underpin it. It is now in operation in the three jurisdictions of the UK.

No research has taken place here, except the research we on the Opposition side of the House have conducted. The Government’s opposition to the Bill is totally illogical and borders on the bizarre. The Government continues its stubborn opposition to any question of administrative sanctions in the face of the incontrovertible evidence that such a system operates successfully in every other EU member state. That leaves us as the odd man out in Europe, with our total reliance on punitive criminal penalties for even the most minor offences.

According to the Government, the EU Commission is wrong in favouring administrative sanctions, and so is the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority, even though it is charged with enforcement of fishery law. The Government by implication condemns the authorities in England and Wales, Marine Scotland and our neighbours in Northern Ireland, which have all recently introduced the approach I am advocating. The Minister seems to be saying that we should not confuse him with the facts, as his mind is made up.

The Minister’s opposition to the Bill seems to be based on a series of fundamental misapprehensions. Despite the incontrovertible evidence to the contrary, he insists on applying a simplistic analysis to a nuanced and seriously researched legislative initiative.

The opposition by Members on the Government benches — such as it is — seems predicated on the same two faulty assumptions that have been the bedrock of Government opposition since 2004. Those articles of faith, repeated in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary, are further muddled by a seeming inability to grasp how the Bill would operate in practice. The Members opposite have attempted to paint the Bill as a pirate’s charter and a carte blanche for unscrupulous fishermen to land whatever they wish while getting off with a €1,000 fine. That view is sustainable only by a wilful ignorance of the Bill’s contents and a refusal to view it as a part of a sophisticated tripartite sanctions approach.

I will address the Minister’s objections. The Minister has now finally accepted that there is no necessary constitutional impediment to the introduction of administrative sanctions, which was the defence used in the past. However, he continues to hove to the belief that they would be unconstitutional in the case of fisheries offences — as if what is okay on land is not okay at sea.

The Minister’s argument is based on the utterly disproportionate fines — even for minor offences — in his own Bill and the 2006 Act. He uses a circular argument to say that it would therefore be impossible to introduce administrative sanctions for those minor offences. That is the most ridiculous argument of all time.

Second, it is precisely those gross fines and forfeitures for minor offences that would be unnecessary under this Bill. They would be dealt with expeditiously in a different way. The point of the Bill is that the vast swathe of technical offences will be dealt with by administrative sanction, thus rendering the expensive, inefficient, disproportionate and swingeing forfeiture provisions that the Minister hides behind unnecessary in the vast majority of cases. That is exactly the same way in which we enforce our health and safety regulations and road traffic regulations. I have yet to hear a single, sensible, domestic, legal and logical argument to the Bill.

The Minister pretends that the European Commission requires us to follow his approach, conveniently ignoring the fact that every report from the European Commission and the European Parliament tells us that administrative sanctions are the way forward. I will quote from a 2001 European Commission report — the Minister should take a look at it — on the implementation of the CFP. It states “administrative sanctions appear to have a number of advantages over criminal sanctions”, and describes them as the way forward. I ask why this Government [833]is standing on its own and saying it has the only answer to the problem of fisheries offence enforcement.

The European Commission has long accepted that administrative sanctions, backed by criminal penalties for persistent or serious offenders — which I am all for — is by far the most effective way to enforce fisheries legislation. The Minister should ask why that system has been introduced in the UK, and in Northern Ireland a couple of years ago. Is he saying they were wrong, or deliberately trying to damage the fisheries? That is partly the argument I am hearing from the Government side of the House.

It is clear that those jurisdictions have examined and consulted on the situation, and come up with the best possible process. I ask the Minister why we are not doing that here. We are going back to the same old tired ridiculous arguments that have no substance whatsoever.

We now come to the nub of the Minister’s opposition. It pains me when I hear it, because it is so wilfully wrong. It is wrong to argue that the Bill will somehow provide rogue fishermen with a licence to do what they will while paying a €1,000 fine, resulting in the degradation of Ireland’s fish stocks. That objection is based not on anything in the Bill, but on a fantasy bill.

We currently have a situation whereby the Naval Service can issue warning letters that have absolutely zero prosecutorial effect. The Minister seems to think the SFPA has the same authority, but it does not have any legal authority to do that. It has one authority, which is to come in with a blunderbuss approach for even the most minor offences.

I have examined the regulations in other countries and here in Ireland. Such offences include infringements on twine thickness, trailing of lures, buoyage, flagging of seine nets and marking of vessels. The only way the SFPA can insist on enforcing those regulations is to bring the offenders to court. That is the most ridiculous situation of all time. The end result is that very often nothing is done, and the fishermen and the SFPA know that.

Even worse, an attitude has developed among some fishermen that they might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb. If a fisherman is going to be prosecuted for being 4 kg over the quota, as happened in Donegal recently, he may as well have 400 kg on board. That is not the way to properly enforce regulations. It leads to the development of a poisonous relationship between the decent people trying to do their job in the SFPA and the decent people on the other side, the fishermen.

The SFPA wants a better arrangement. It wants a situation — as it said in evidence before the Oireachtas committee — in which it can operate on the basis of guidance, advice and pressure, using minor penalties like the traffic warden or the people who issue penalty notices for speeding. It wants to use the heavy weaponry for serious offences. That is how the system operates in every other country — I ask the Minister why it cannot operate here.

The Minister should recognise that the 2006 Act is neither proportionate nor effective in preserving our fish stocks. I ask why we are following this route and ignoring what is happening in every other country in the EU.

In Fine Gael’s approach, the role of the Naval Service and the residual jurisdiction of the courts will be retained. The median swathe of technical regulation that controls every aspect of gear and stowage on board ship will be dealt with in an efficient, effective fashion.

I ask the Minister to go back to the drawing board and consider a sensible approach. That should be carefully approached and argued, and presented in a reasonable fashion. I say that for no reason other than that I want a better system that everyone will buy into and that every other country supports.

The Government stands alone on the issue. The approach in the Bill is approved by every other party in the House and — as I know from private discussions, which I cannot disclose — by many of the Minister’s colleagues. It is approved by the European Parliament and the [834]European Commission, and by every other member state in the EU. It is approved by the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority and — last but not least — by the fishermen. I ask the Government to join the people who approved this approach and introduce the kind of system that operates and works effectively in every other country in the European Union. It can do so by supporting this Bill.

Question put.

The Dáil divided: Tá, 69; Níl, 77.

Information on James Bannon  Zoom on James Bannon  Bannon, James. Information on Seán Barrett  Zoom on Seán Barrett  Barrett, Seán.
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Information on John Deasy  Zoom on John Deasy  Deasy, John. Information on Jimmy Deenihan  Zoom on Jimmy Deenihan  Deenihan, Jimmy.
Information on Andrew Doyle  Zoom on Andrew Doyle  Doyle, Andrew. Information on Bernard Durkan  Zoom on Bernard Durkan  Durkan, Bernard J.
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Information on Terence Flanagan  Zoom on Terence Flanagan  Flanagan, Terence. Information on Eamon Gilmore  Zoom on Eamon Gilmore  Gilmore, Eamon.
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Information on Kathleen Lynch  Zoom on Kathleen Lynch  Lynch, Kathleen. Information on Pádraic McCormack  Zoom on Pádraic McCormack  McCormack, Pádraic.
Information on Shane McEntee  Zoom on Shane McEntee  McEntee, Shane. Information on Dinny McGinley  Zoom on Dinny McGinley  McGinley, Dinny.
Information on Finian McGrath  Zoom on Finian McGrath  McGrath, Finian. Information on Joe McHugh  Zoom on Joe McHugh  McHugh, Joe.
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Information on Sean Sherlock  Zoom on Sean Sherlock  Sherlock, Seán. Information on Emmet Stagg  Zoom on Emmet Stagg  Stagg, Emmet.
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Níl
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Information on Dara Calleary  Zoom on Dara Calleary  Calleary, Dara. Information on Pat Carey  Zoom on Pat Carey  Carey, Pat.
Information on Niall Collins  Zoom on Niall Collins  Collins, Niall. Information on Margaret Conlon  Zoom on Margaret Conlon  Conlon, Margaret.
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Information on John Cregan  Zoom on John Cregan  Cregan, John. Information on Ciaran Cuffe  Zoom on Ciaran Cuffe  Cuffe, Ciarán.
Information on John Curran  Zoom on John Curran  Curran, John. Information on Noel Dempsey  Zoom on Noel Dempsey  Dempsey, Noel.
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Information on Noel Grealish  Zoom on Noel Grealish  Grealish, Noel. Information on Mary Hanafin  Zoom on Mary Hanafin  Hanafin, Mary.
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Information on Máire Hoctor  Zoom on Máire Hoctor  Hoctor, Máire. Information on Billy Kelleher  Zoom on Billy Kelleher  Kelleher, Billy.
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Information on Michael Kitt  Zoom on Michael Kitt  Kitt, Michael P. Information on Tom Kitt  Zoom on Tom Kitt  Kitt, Tom.
Information on Brian Joseph Lenihan  Zoom on Brian Joseph Lenihan  Lenihan, Brian. Information on Conor Lenihan  Zoom on Conor Lenihan  Lenihan, Conor.
Information on Michael Lowry  Zoom on Michael Lowry  Lowry, Michael. Information on James McDaid  Zoom on James McDaid  McDaid, James.
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Information on Michael McGrath  Zoom on Michael McGrath  McGrath, Michael. Information on John McGuinness  Zoom on John McGuinness  McGuinness, John.
Information on Dr Martin Mansergh  Zoom on Dr Martin Mansergh  Mansergh, Martin. Information on John Moloney  Zoom on John Moloney  Moloney, John.
Information on Michael Moynihan  Zoom on Michael Moynihan  Moynihan, Michael. Information on Michael Mulcahy  Zoom on Michael Mulcahy  Mulcahy, Michael.
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Information on Charlie O'Connor  Zoom on Charlie O'Connor  O’Connor, Charlie. Information on John O'Donoghue  Zoom on John O'Donoghue  O’Donoghue, John.
Information on Noel O'Flynn  Zoom on Noel O'Flynn  O’Flynn, Noel. Information on Rory O'Hanlon  Zoom on Rory O'Hanlon  O’Hanlon, Rory.
Information on Batt O'Keeffe  Zoom on Batt O'Keeffe  O’Keeffe, Batt. Information on Ned O'Keeffe  Zoom on Ned O'Keeffe  O’Keeffe, Edward.
Information on Mary O'Rourke  Zoom on Mary O'Rourke  O’Rourke, Mary. Information on Christy O'Sullivan  Zoom on Christy O'Sullivan  O’Sullivan, Christy.
Information on Peter Power  Zoom on Peter Power  Power, Peter. Information on Seán Power  Zoom on Seán Power  Power, Seán.
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Information on Trevor Sargent  Zoom on Trevor Sargent  Sargent, Trevor. Information on Eamon Scanlon  Zoom on Eamon Scanlon  Scanlon, Eamon.
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Information on Michael J. Woods  Zoom on Michael J. Woods  Woods, Michael.  

Tellers: Tá, Deputies Paul Kehoe and Emmet Stagg; Níl, Deputies John Curran and John Cregan.

Question declared lost.


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