Thursday, 20 May 2010
Dáil Eireann Debate
Minister of State at the Department of Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs (Deputy Conor Lenihan): At the outset, I thank Deputies for allowing me to report back to the House at an early stage on the amendments introduced to the Bill on Committee and Report Stages in the Seanad.
These amendments concern the removal of the provisions excluding local authority members from becoming members of the board of Inland Fisheries Ireland. Amendment No. 1 removes section 40(1)(d), which provides that a member of Inland Fisheries Ireland must relinquish such membership on becoming a member of a local authority. I concurred with the arguments of Members of the other House and agreed that it was in order to remove this provision.
Amendment No. 2 is a consequential amendment that removes the clause in section 40(4) which disqualifies members of local authorities from becoming a member of Inland Fisheries Ireland. The prohibition is retained in respect of the chief executive officer position for Inland Fisheries Ireland.
Deputy Joe McHugh: The Government has not learned that past performance is a good indicator of future performance. The Minister of State should check what has happened within the HSE, where the role of county councillors, while it was retained, was not kept at a local level. A county councillor from Culdaff would have to travel to Galway to make representations for his constituency and was caught up in the whole debate on water pollution in Galway. In this instance, the diabolical nature of the HSE model is being used as a bailiwick to avoid introducing county councillors to these boards. It is important that there is local county council representation on this board. It is an opportunity missed that should be re-examined.
Deputy Conor Lenihan: That is precisely the purpose of the amendment, to remove the prohibition in the legislation as it was drafted. I am doing that in line with the recommendation of the Fine Gael spokesman in the Seanad so perhaps the Deputy misunderstands what I am doing.
Deputy Joe McHugh: I did not say that. In terms of the structure, did the Minister of State analyse what went wrong with the HSE, where county councillors in Donegal had to attend meetings in Galway? We should keep this at a local level. That has not been teased out.
Deputy Joe McHugh: I will not accept facetiousness from the Minister of State. I am making the point that the system for county councillors on boards of the HSE does not work. I am asking the Minister to State to ensure county councillors serve at local level and do not have to travel around the country, which could happen under this Bill.
Deputy Joe McHugh: ——the point of view here that mistakes were made in the composition of the HSE board in that county councillors from Culdaff discuss issues in Galway that are not relevant to their local needs. I am encouraging the Minister of State — not attacking him — to ensure that lessons are learned from this HSE model in which county councillors from Donegal travel to Galway and vice versa. They should be kept at local level. I am not speaking about the composition of the board, but about where county councillors are located and what job they have to do, and not having county councillors from Waterford travelling to Donegal. That is all I am doing. I am offering assistance. I am not disagreeing with or attacking the Minister of State. I resent the fact that the Minister of State is saying that I do not know what I am talking about.
Deputy Conor Lenihan: Plainly the Deputy has not read the Bill. There is no proposal to put councillors on the board of Inland Fisheries Ireland. I have made five appointments already and the Oireachtas committee will make the balance of those appointments. There is absolutely no intention to have councillors travelling to any meetings of Inland Fisheries Ireland. The Deputy’s assertions seem to be based on either ignorance or misunderstanding of what is in the Bill. The Bill is about Inland Fisheries Ireland. We are getting rid of all of the local fisheries boards that were there before.
Deputy Conor Lenihan: ——nor do I intend appointing any. All I am doing is introducing an amendment in response to Fine Gael and Labour Party Senators who I thought had the very good idea that we should not put into legislation matters that discriminate against councillors being members of boards if they have specific qualifications or expertise——
I welcome the two amendments that have been tabled because this is an area about which I have always been uneasy. I agree with the Minister of State’s leader, the Taoiseach, Deputy Brian Cowen, when he defends the right of public representatives to be appointed to boards in certain situations when they have expertise. Being a public representative is honourable and it should not automatically exclude one from being appointed to a board where one is a suitable contender.
I appreciate there is much frustration about the HSE and this has spilled over today. I certainly share that frustration. However, in this instance we should remember that the Minister of State has introduced legislation which has the support of the sector. It results from a major report examining how to ensure the future management of our fisheries. Generally speaking, we all support the approach. On the specifics of whether somebody happens to be on a local authority, the Minister of State has taken on board the approach taken by Fine Gael in the Seanad. I certainly welcome that.
Since the Minister of State has mentioned the appointments he has made, he must be aware — I would like to ensure that he is fully aware — that there are concerns about those appointments. Obviously, the joint Oireachtas committee will have an opportunity to make up for the imbalance that has arisen. However, I have concerns as it has already happened with regard to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland. It is really not the job of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Energy and Natural Resources to ensure there is balance. Our job is to find the very best people but very often we end up not necessarily with the best but with those who fit the categories ignored by the Minister of State.
The chairperson of the Southern Regional Fisheries Board and others have made the point that the board members were unhappy with the lack of representation from the coarse, commercial, drift, draft, snap and sea-angling sectors, and the lack of regional balance with no representation from the east, south east and south west of the country. This is obviously a gap and an imbalance that we will have to address and I urge the Minister of State to take this into account. Ultimately, it is not us who make the appointments, it is the Minister of State. It is a pity that a new board with a new life and a new approach has already been subject to a certain amount of controversy.
Deputy Conor Lenihan: I will certainly take that on board. I emphasise it is a nine member board so inevitably the emphasis must be on expertise and people who are suitably qualified to deliver the change and reform required in the inland fisheries sector. It will not be a case of, in the proverbial words of Gay Byrne, “one for everyone in the audience”. I cannot assure the Deputy with regard to all of these interest groups which have written to her seeking to be represented on the board in some fashion. It will not be possible and we must be honest about that. However, there will be an opportunity in the forum that will exist following the passing of the Bill for all of those sectoral and geographical factors to be heard. It will be the primary listening post for the new authority and the new executive to consult with the sector at large.
To the Deputy from Donegal, it is important to state that this is a significant opportunity to reform and change the sector. It has been in the pipeline for ten years and seven previous Ministers and Ministers of State have gestated over it. I thank Deputy McManus for the assistance she gave on Committee Stage. I know the Deputy opposite is concerned about what happened in the HSE as, I think, is everybody in the House. He will appreciate that the amendment is aimed to redress a wrong done to councillors, which is now followed almost by ritual as many Bills contain this prohibition as if councillors were in some way suspect individuals without qualification or merit to be part of these bodies. I hope other Ministers and Ministers of State will follow suit and do the same. I agree with him that there needs to be more consultation by the HSE with local representatives at a local level. He is quite correct to state the era we have gone through in which people clocked in for conferences in parts of the country far from their own area is gone.
Deputy Joe McHugh: I thank the Minister of State. I threw out the past experience as a good indicator of future performance and I appreciate him taking on board that there are lessons to be learned. Certainly, there are people with the skills required on local authorities and they could be on the board. I appreciate what the Minister of State has said.
Deputy Conor Lenihan: I wish to record my personal thanks, and I am sure the House would also like to pay tribute to all of the people who participated over the years, particularly the outgoing members of the regional fisheries boards for the service they have given to the inland water resource. It is not often said and it would not be right to finish our conclusions here without recording very strongly our gratitude and thanks for the work it does and hope that even though the new structures mean that it will not be board members, it will contribute its voluntary efforts in the future for the protection of this very valuable resource.
Deputy Liz McManus: I support that view and thank all those who have given great service and provided expertise, wisdom and local knowledge, very often at considerable costs in terms of time, over the years. An extraordinary contribution has been made, largely on a voluntary basis, some of which has been very useful in making decisions on planning, spatial planning decisions and all the rest. We have to move on. I wish the structures well. This morning we have moved into calmer waters and I hope that will also be the case for the new structures.
Deputy Joe McHugh: I concur. Members of the angling fraternity feel they probably need stronger representation. With the disbanding of the Salmon Commission as part of this Bill, a serious debate is needed on the conservation of salmon stock. The debate has been of a one-way nature and has put the whole and collective blame on drift net and draft net fishermen. It has now been proven, even in the absence of drift and draft net fishermen. We need to have a serious debate as to why salmon stocks are not returning and why the larger populations of seals which are being reported are not being investigated. We need to examine what type of damage has been done to salmon stocks by seals. We need the Marine Institute to work closely with that.
We also need to take cognisance of something which I raised at the initial Stages of this Bill. The locks agency is becoming a bureaucratic monster. Every regulation it introduces has to go through London, Stormont and Dublin. It is becoming a very difficult piece of work, in terms of getting commonsense practice at a local level. We need to keep and eye on these things. More challenges will come down the track.
In Foyle, as the Minister of State is well aware, there are 18 drift net licences and 19 draft net licences. The fishermen concerned decided not to take a voluntary buy-out and decided, because of historic and traditional interests, to keep these licences. They are not destroying the salmon stocks compared to other possible reasons, such as pollution or the seal population. We need a debate on what we can do to try to protect them. We have completely banned drift and draft net fishing from our island.
Deputy Conor Lenihan: I would welcome such a debate if Deputy McHugh decides to initiate it. It would be timely. On the locks agency, I am not sure whether it is a bureaucratic monster yet. I will meet with him on that because I am anxious to hear if an agency is becoming overly bureaucratic. I would like to hear his comments.
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