We are resuming on Vote 30. Members' and witnesses' attention is drawn to the fact that, as and from 2 August 1998, section 10 of the Committees of the Houses of the Oireachtas (Compellability, Privileges and Immunities of Witnesses) Act, 1997, grants certain rights to the persons identified in the course of the committee's proceedings. Notwithstanding this provision in the legislation, I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. We are resuming the examination which took place on 11 January. Will Mr. Carroll, please, introduce his officials?
1999 Annual Report of Comptroller and Auditor General and Appropriation Accounts.
Vote 30 - Department of the Marine and Natural Resources (Resumed).
I am accompanied by Mr. Michael Gilfoyle, assistant secretary in charge of, among other matters, maritime safety; Captain Liam Kirwan, head of the Irish Coast Guard, a division of the Department of the Marine and Natural Resources, and Mr. Brendan Buckley, finance unit.
Department of Finance officials, Mr. Tony Gallagher and Mr. Niall MacSweeney, are also in attendance. Mr. Carroll, do you wish to make a brief comment without going into too much detail? We received information from you on what is happening in certain areas.
The marine safety and marine environment agenda is enormous. It covers a range of headings. We have supplied the committee with a general background note which I hope is helpful. Since we last met the Department has obtained approval, following a consultancy study, for the rationalisation of maritime safety services and how we organise them in the Department. We are proceeding to establish a marine safety directorate to create an integrated and special focus on maritime safety. It will include some 20 additional staff, of whom approximately 12 will be specialist marine surveyors to enable us to enforce the wide range of new safety regulations coming on stream.
The Minister expects to announce shortly the establishment of an independent board to investigate marine casualties. At present they are carried out by marine surveyors in our Department. A special review of that organisation was set up some years ago and that is being brought into effect shortly. As you will be aware, Chairman, the Adventure Activities Standards Authority Bill, 2000, is before the Dáil at present and we are hoping for early progress on that because we are very anxious to have that authority set up.
We will initiate a review of the future direction of the Irish Coast Guard shortly. The air-sea rescue side of the Irish Coast Guard is now fully established for all practical purposes. There are some helicopter issues still there to come back to, but our capability in the marine pollution side, which has taken second place in recent years to the safety of life, is a particular priority which will be followed in the coming years.
There is a whole range of safety regulations relating to angling boats, fishing vessels and jet ski fast craft. The committee will have noticed an announcement in recent days that in light of important new developments at European level, the Loran C project has moved into a different sphere and we must go back to base on that. On the helicopter agenda, briefly our aim there is to have four medium lift helicopters in place by the middle of next year. Therefore, there is a whole range of organisational activities and regulatory change. There is a massive agenda and I certainly will try to be as helpful as possible to the committee in answering questions members may have.
There are not too many marine harbours in Kildare, but we certainly have many canal harbours, probably more than anywhere else, and we take an interest in what is happening. What is the new situation on the Loran C project and how does the Department propose to react?
Unexpectedly, at a recent meeting of the European steering group which manages this project, two of the major members of the system, Germany and Norway, gave advance notice that they do not intend to stay in the system when the present agreement expires in 2004. This calls into question the whole viability of the Loran C project in Europe. As the committee will be aware, Ireland signed up to that international agreement, ratified by Dáil Éireann in 1992, and has endeavoured to meet its commitments under it, but due to a whole combination of factors, particularly court rulings on a site in Clare, that project did not progress in Ireland. We were unable to meet our requirements, but we endeavoured to do it in other ways.
However, in light of this latest development, we must pause and take stock. The rationale for the Loran C project was to have a ground-based alternative to satellite systems. The principal satellite systems in place at present are under military control and liable to interruption at any time because of the security considerations of the major powers involved. In the early 1980s and 1990s, the civilian authorities in Europe felt that this was not good enough for the safety management of all those vessels, particularly fishing vessels, in European waters. The very fundamentals of the system have been questioned by the German Government and the Norwegian Government. There is an increasing view in light of changing technology that Loran C is not necessary.
Is it out of date?
Yes, it is out of date and there is new technology. With the increased security of the GPS satellite system, there is a feeling that perhaps in the post-Cold War environment it is not as liable to interruption as it was.
We are going back to the drawing board and the Minister has initiated a review by the Commissioner of Irish Lights and the Department in consultation with the sectors involved of whether we need a terrestrial system in light of what has happened since. Basically, a halt has been called to our efforts to find an alternative mast location.
I find this remarkable. There is a voluminous file on Loran C, on the objections in Clare originally and on how the people took the Department and the Commissioner of Irish Lights to the steps of the court. This Government and the previous Government placed tremendous store on the urgent necessity for Loran C and now you are saying that on the basis of present circumstances it is not required. Now you are back to the drawing board. I find it remarkable, considering the pain which has proceeded all of this and the arguments by everybody, including the Department and the Commissioner of Irish Lights, that this installation is justified.
Recently I read that the Department was considering a location in west Cork for this project if it got community approval after it failed to get community approval in Clare. It was stated in the Dáil that money would be given to a community organisation if it accepted the location of this Loran C mast in the area. All of a sudden the project is not on the agenda. The justification for Loran C at the time was that the fishing trawlers needed it and that it had been accepted at European level. Mr. Carroll, are you stating that it is no longer needed?
No, I am not saying that. First, this system was introduced with widespread participation on the part of the major European countries. At the time everybody signed up for this, including Ireland. There seemed to be a compelling rationale. Having signed up for it, we were then party to an international agreement, which is a solemn undertaking by the State and something which we could not unilaterally set aside. Therefore, we had a duty to implement that agreement and we proceeded to do that as best we could.
We have been pursuing alternative sites up to recently. What you said is correct. What we are saying now is that there is a pause. There is still the question of whether a terrestrial system is needed and there are mixed views about that in Europe. Two of the principal parties, Germany and Norway, have basically called a halt on their participation and, therefore, that changes fundamentally the international context within which we are working. That comes as a major shock and surprise, but that is what happened and we must react to the new situation.
Is it not ironic that the people who objected to the proposed siting of this at Loop Head when this process started about six years ago have turned out to be correct and if they had not objected in the first place, this Loran C mast would be in place in Clare? I find it ironic that these changes appear to suggest that the local people were correct in their opposition to the project from day one.
I wonder what is the extent of the financial loss to the Department and the State as a result because this has gone through a long convoluted process. I find it remarkable that only a few weeks ago I read that the Department was still chasing a location in west Cork and trying to get the local people to accept this Loran C mast, but now there is a complete sea change.
Objections to masts are commonplace no matter where one tries to put them.
This was higher than the Eiffel Tower, so it is understandable.
Absolutely. I accept that. There were site-specific arguments against a mast in that specific location and then other arguments were thrown into the pot. They were not without some validity as to the relevance of this in the long-term. Perhaps in retrospect they were correct in that but we must now stand back and agree fundamentally on the best future strategy in light of these new developments. From the viewpoint of the Department and our role, we have been charged by the Dáil and Government since 1992 with implementing an international agreement and that is what we have been doing as best we can.
I accept that but the point is it does not stop. We still have trawlers out there and the original objective was to improve the whole safety system for our trawlers. If something is to change we will still be dragging this out in the long-term. If you now go back to the drawing board what system will you come up with to replace Loran C and what length of time will that take? I would be interested in the committee hearing what the State's loss is as a result of this aborted Loran C project over the past few years? What has been spent on court actions? I do not expect you to have the figure off the top of your head but this must run to millions of pounds at this stage. As we are charged with the public accounts we are entitled to know what amount has been spent on this aborted project. Perhaps you could furnish us with that information.
The Loran C mast in Ireland was an integral part of a European system and the process involved in Loran C was to have triangulisation, a means of position fixing for a boat in water, so one needed a range of masts. There were local benefits to Ireland as well as significant international benefits far beyond Ireland. This was not simply brought in as a local system.
I know it was international.
Regarding the costs, they are substantial. A lot of money has been spent on this project by European countries and a lot of that may prove in retrospect to be nugatory. Ireland's expenditure, similarly, in total to date would be over £2 million.
So the project is £2 million. Did the State pick up the court costs of the people in Loop Head in Clare who took the case in the first place?
I presume if they won their case, which they did, they would have been awarded costs or some of the costs.
You are not aware of the costs that were involved in that case?
Not off hand, no.
There are more serious implications. First, when the announcement was made about Norway and Germany and their plans, I presume the Department took stock of the situation in light of the new circumstances regarding marine safety generally. The proposed service to be provided through Loran C throughout Europe must be replaced with something else. Either the project was necessary or it was not and the question now is, notwithstanding the money spent, what proposals does the Department have and to what extent has it communicated with Departments in other European countries which committed themselves to expenditure under this heading? What response, if any, has there been from the European institutions on this matter?
This is hot off the presses. The meeting took place only a couple of weeks ago.
That is not hot off the presses. A couple of weeks is a long time in this business.
There was a meting of the steering group and at that meeting this announcement was made by those countries. The Minister has announced a number of initiatives, that we should proceed to assess the implications of the qualified notice of withdrawal that the German and Norwegian members made, that we should review our own policies on maritime radio navigation aids in consultation with the various stakeholders and in the meantime we should suspend work on the installation of a Loran C mast. That is now in train and the Department will be working with the Commissioners of Irish Lights on that.
In view of the fact that the Department was complying with a European agreement which has now been arbitrarily suspended by virtue of the almost unilateral action of one country, followed by another, I presume both countries responded on the same day, or did one react first and then there was a knock-on effect?
I think they possibly acted in concert but what they gave was qualified notice of their withdrawal post the expiry of the current agreement.
To what extent can the Department of the Marine and Natural Resources seek compensation for losses incurred by virtue of entering into contracts and following procedures which have been agreed through discussions with their European colleagues? There is no sense in putting forward a plan when someone says, "Sorry lads, we are jumping off the ship."
The existing agreement was a ten year one as I understand it and is still in place. There is no place for Ireland to in any way seek compensation from anyone as I understand it. The difficulty we have always faced is that we were perhaps exposing international law to some challenge by virtue of the fact that we had not met our obligations under the agreement.
The Department cannot meet its obligations because of the changed situation in any event and neither can any other country.
The infrastructure has been largely established by other countries. The Irish mast has not been completed.
I need more information on this as it is getting more intriguing as time goes on. It appears that the other countries which have committed themselves to the project have incurred certain costs and are proceeding, that is, except the two which have opted out.
They have the infrastructure in place. What they are saying is that post the existing agreement in 2004 they do not intend to commit themselves further.
So the project will be becalmed?
No, not even becalmed, less than becalmed, if there is such a state.
It depends. It could be privatised or there may be some residual countries which put something together.
We will need, at some later stage in the not too distant future, indications as to the Department's proposals regarding safeguarding expenditure incurred and protecting future expenditure. We could have a situation whereby the existing agreement, in revived form, could be abandoned by two or three other contributing countries and we might be on our own. This is a very thorny operation and as a matter of urgency we need to get a fairly quick update on what is proposed. Otherwise we may find ourselves in two or three years' time involved in a major investigation as to why a particular project was proceeded with when it was clearly indicated that two or three of the contributing parties had withdrawn from the scene, leaving the rest. There will obviously be a void or gap in the marine safety area arising from this.
It was a huge issue in Clare at the time.
I am aware of that.
What I find ironic is that those people have been vindicated in their actions and it is probably fortunate they objected on the basis of the new information the Secretary General gave us - this was not an acceptable project in the first place.
It was acceptable.
It was acceptable in the first place but now it is not. I will rephrase that.
This project has been going on for virtually ten years in Europe and most major European states signed up to it. The best technical advice was available that this was the way to go and Ireland rowed in with that. Things have obviously changed significantly, but hindsight is perfect vision.
I have always claimed there is no such thing as hindsight. A judgment has to be made at the time. Unfortunately, we do not have the facility of revisitation. I am sure my colleague, Deputy Gildea, is more familiar with harbours. Mr. Carroll mentioned telecommunications in terms of marine safety. Obviously a communications system is a very important ingredient. To what extent is he happy with the quality of our communications network in terms of keeping marine safety to the highest possible standards, given we have had a number of scares in recent times and a number of tragedies.
The communications systems for marine emergencies is primarily run through our Department. We have three call centres, in Valencia, Malin and Dublin, which act as the cockpit for communications in terms of marine emergencies, maydays etc. That system works extremely well with the VHS systems, infrastructure and radio stations around the coast. My understanding is that we have a very high quality communications system.
It is capable of dealing with any situation which arises at present.
The receiving of a message by whatever means, including mobile telephone——
That is not the question. With no disrespect to mobile telephones, which we all have and which sometimes work and sometimes do not - there are places where they do not work - I want to find out the degree to which there is a fail-safe system in place whereby the communications system will work in almost every instance. One must plan for the worst possible case. If there is an emergency, can we rely entirely on the communications system in all areas?
There is a range of issues. There are rules and regulations governing the equipment which much be carried by each vessel. We have an inspectorate - marine radio surveyors - who inspect and certify boats. There is also a training and certification regime in place. All Irish registered vessels must meet those requirements.
Are you happy enough with the degree of inspection available at present?
No, at present we only have four officers in that category. It is one of the areas we are expanding. My feeling is that generally speaking the equipment available, its use and the relay stations available to communicate to headquarters is of high quality.
Regarding the three main centres around the county which in turn relay messages to the rescue services, how satisfied are you about the degree of technology and are the procedures in accord with the highest possible standards?
We are very satisfied. We have almost complete cover around the coast, with 17 very high frequency sites and medium frequency coverage up to 200 miles. We have digital calling systems and we meet the highest international standards in terms of equipment. Our ability to handle the communications is top class. The Irish coastguard has the ability to receive messages and manage incidents to a very high standard on the basis of a 365 day, 24 hour service. We have highly trained people on call at all times to take those messages, to manage incidents and mobilise resources. We have a large volume of resources available to us, including helicopters, boats, the RNLI, coast and cliff rescue services and 600 volunteers around the coast who do a marvellous job. Therefore, we have a very strong capability.
You are happy with the quality and standard of service available, which is sufficient to meet requirements.
Our coastguard service is a world class service.
I know it is claimed there is a division of responsibilities between two Departments. For example, some time ago I understand an Irish registered passenger carrying vessel was impounded in another jurisdiction as it was felt safety standards were not in accord with internationally required practices. I am talking about not only the running of the ship. Safety applies to anybody who travels and includes safety procedures on leaving and entering a port, embarking and disembarking, radio and telecommunications, procedures on board, chain of command etc., all of which have a serious impact on the lives and welfare of passengers.
Safety at sea, particularly of major passenger vessels, is governed by international regulations which set standards across Europe and the world.
To which we contribute.
To which we contribute both in formulation and implementation. Second, there is very close co-operation between the inspectorate services in the UK and here, for example, on major passenger vessels. In 2000 almost five million passengers travelled on the major ferries. Our top priority is to ensure those major ferries are inspected regularly and that training exercises are carried out, including emergency drills. We also raid these vessels from time to time.
How did that particular vessel get out of an Irish port and get caught in a foreign jurisdiction?
I am not familiar with that particular incident.
The ferry left Cork and went to either Swansea or some other UK port where it was boarded, with the result that it was deemed the safety procedures in place were inadequate. I have tabled a number of parliamentary questions about this which the Department of the Marine and Natural Resources did not accept as it deemed the issue was the responsibility of another Department on the grounds of health and safety, although I am not certain that is the case. It could have serious implications, including cost implications, for the Department of the Marine and Natural Resources in the event of a repeat resulting in a tragedy.
I am not familiar with the particular incident.
Somebody in the Department must be familiar with it. I cannot understand how the Department of the Marine and Natural Resources could be oblivious of a matter of that nature. Is that true?
We are not oblivious of it, but that would have been handled by an inspector on the ground. We inspect hundreds of vessels on a weekly basis.
This is a different matter altogether. I would have presumed that on seeing on television or hearing on radio that a passenger carrying vessel had been found to have below standard safety procedures on board, given whatever processes are undergone in such circumstances, the Department would have responded instantly, that everyone involved in marine safety would have been on the telephone within ten minutes inquiring as to what went wrong and how such a vessel was able to leave an Irish port, obviously with a clean bill of health, and arrive elsewhere to find it did not have a clean bill of health.
I tabled a number of questions on this issue which were deflected to another Department. I found it extremely difficult to understand how they could have been passed to the Department with responsibility for health and safety in the workplace. This is a marine issue which has to do with the law of the sea. I would like to know what exactly is going on because this should not have happened. It was a newly commissioned vessel. I was probably on its maiden voyage from Cork to a UK port and no one in the Department of the Marine and Natural Resources knows anything about it.
I recall something at the time, but I am not aware of the detail today. I will certainly send the committee a note on the particular incident.
That would be wise as it is a matter of extreme urgency.
I am disappointed at the reference to marine pollution being the poor relation for some time because of the concentration on marine safety generally, even though I am not suggesting marine safety should be put on a lower rung. To what extent are procedures in place to cover the whole area of marine pollution, by which I mean several things? A marine tanker cruising by does not have to be inshore to cause a serious problem. To what extent does the Department of the Marine and Natural Resources influence international regulations, particularly ensuring it contributes to enforcing them whereby we eliminate in so far as is possible the possibility of pollution arising from the conduct of oil tankers?
As the Deputy said, there are a number of elements involved. Ireland plays an active role in the issue of marine pollution to ensure regulations are applied internationally which protect Ireland's position. At any given time approximately six oil tankers could be traversing Ireland. Touch wood, we have not had a major incident for a number of years. We actively set out to manage any incident that may be emerging through the Irish Coast Guard. If a vessel carrying hazardous cargo is developing a problem, we will seek to direct it properly to stay far out or clear of Irish waters, whichever is the appropriate response.
The crucial issue is that these oil tankers are inspected. There is a system of inspection in Europe called port state control. Every country must inspect a proportion of vessels calling to its ports. Virtually all oil tankers are inspected frequently and picked up across the system, even though they would not necessarily be arriving in Ireland. We keep a close eye on this procedure. Members will recall a major incident involving the Erica which took place a year or two ago. On foot of that major oil spill, the European Union is involved in a major exercise to put in place packages of measures to deal with the incident.
One of the difficulties which has emerged in recent years is the reliance on classification societies. Given the privatisation of many state services, these classification societies are privately run bodies and there is some concern their standards could not be relied upon. The trend is towards vesting these powers in state authorities and bringing greater surveillance to bear on classification societies. One of the major risks is the single hull oil tanker. A proposal to phase out these tankers is being brought forward at European level. However, it may be difficult to do this internationally. There is a whole European agenda in this regard.
The crucial aspect is to be able to respond to potential liability arising from a major accident. If an oil tanker is passing 50 or 60 miles off our coast, is the Department in a position to be reasonably happy about the standard and quality of the crewing of the vessel? There have been allegations in the past of part-time seamen, amateur seamen, those who had no training at sea, and people being in charge of such vessels who had received either improper or just partial training, consequently posing a threat to other seafarers and in so far as pollution is concerned. Is Mr. Carroll happy that vessels travelling that distance from our shores apply the highest standards?
In general, yes, given the international system in place. These are the high seas and one can never be certain about what might happen. However, the international system of certification and inspection ought to prevent rogue vessels, so to speak, being at sea. One can never be certain about individual cases, which is a problem, because one is dealing with international waters. Our consent is not required for movement outside 12 miles in international waters.
It could pose a serious threat way beyond 12 miles.
I want to refer to low powered recreational craft such as jet skis and so on which are posing big problems in many areas. These craft seem to operate without any regulations and are used indiscriminately. What is the update on the regulations governing their use?
There are two streams of activity in that regard, of which one is the safety regulations to protect users of these craft. I hope within days to have a new regulation in place which will prohibit minors from hiring or operating personal water craft such as jet skis which will require the use of lifejackets. It will be an offence to take alcohol while operating these craft. We are bringing forward shortly a regulation making careless driving an offence. It will be enforced by the Garda and may involve penalties of imprisonment for up to five years, which will be analogous to motor offences. We are introducing legal frameworks and by-laws for local zoning to prohibit the use of jet skis in certain areas. It is my understanding that the Department and 12 local authorities are pressing ahead with the adoption of local plans. The Department cannot do this directly because we do not have the resources or local knowledge. We are working with the local authorities to assist them in drawing up local zoning plans, which I understand will be in place for the forthcoming summer season. A great deal of work is also being done on noise pollution from high powered craft. Proposals are being introduced at European level to ban the construction of craft which make noise above certain levels.
We are moving towards the introduction of a registration system for such craft and compulsory training in the use of such craft. There are approximately 20,000 mechanically propelled leisure craft throughout the country. The implementation of rules in this area will be a long haul. The first port of call will be training and awareness, a major part of our maritime safety regime.
For the protection of the public as distinct from the operators of such craft, does the Department view zoning as a very important matter?
It is absolutely crucial. We have all experienced the sight of a jet ski tearing up and down a few yards off the beach with no regard for the safety of others. There is a groundswell of public opinion on this. It is socially unacceptable and we must support this legally. We are pressing ahead, with the local authorities, to create a regime of zoning which will deal with the issue.
I am well aware of this issue. I watched the debate with great interest when spokesperson on the marine. Jet skis are very powerful machines and present a macho-type image to the younger generation. Regulations have been promised for a long time. Much of the control rests with the local authorities. You mentioned the requirement to wear a life jacket and have no alcohol on board. I wonder where they would keep alcohol on such craft.
Motorists are restricted as to where they can drive their car. Jet skis are even more powerful than many of the motor bikes on our roads. To what degree can anybody insist that a person undertakes proper training before operating such craft? While the Irish Sailing Association provides training, it is not taken up. Surely the provision of training by the companies which sell such craft would be the ultimate way of ensuring people are properly trained to use the equipment.
Yes. I am sure you are aware, having been involved in the marine area for a long time, that we are starting from scratch. We will have to deal with 20,000 mechanically propelled vehicles. The number of high powered craft is much smaller. You or I can go down town and buy a high powered vessel and take it out to sea. As things stand, we do not need a licence or permission to do so. We have to move towards a situation where this simply cannot happen. There will be very fundamental changes in the way in which we organise the sector. The Department is engaged in a partnership with a leisure craft action group and some very responsible groups, like the Irish Sailing Association, which take their role in this area very seriously.
We are working on a long-term agenda. You rightly picked up on the point that part of that agenda will be registration. Many countries require a person to hold some type of licence before he or she can operate such craft. That is a long way down the road for us. We will have to reach a situation where it will not be easy or possible for somebody to buy a vessel without certification of training from a recognised association. That is our objective, but it is something we cannot do overnight. We have to bring many people along with us on the issue.
Many will resent the State's encroachment on traditional marine leisure which has remained unregulated, but the time has clearly come, as recognised by most contributors in the Dáil, to tackle this area given the knock-on implications for the marine emergency service. We must deal with it and find a mechanism which is not resourcing intensive. We must avail of very professional organisations like the Irish Sailing Organisation to underpin registration and training schemes. I agree that the current situation is unacceptable.
You may be right in suggesting people will resent encroachment in this area. Surely that is the starting point. There should be compulsory training. Even if such training cost £150, at least inherent in the programme would be a sense of responsibility for swimmers. One can have all the regulations one wants and talk about the Garda implementing them, but I wonder to what degree this can be done when a person is about one mile off the shoreline. We will all be satisfied if people are properly trained in the use of such equipment. I am sure the Irish Sailing Association would provide certificates at the end of such training. Those with reasonably well kept cars are being called up for the NCT. People do not realise how powerful and dangerous jet skis are. They are often referred to as aquatic motor bikes.
Yes, we do have to go down that road. As regards enforcement of the regulations by the Garda, most local areas have a Garda presence in such areas. The person concerned must come in from the sea at some stage and can then be interviewed. It is important, in the longer term, that we put in place a registration system. A person who is not registered will then be committing an offence. A person will be required to account for his or her vessel. It is somewhat like dealing with certain motorists. If one deals with the exceptional cases, it underpins those who are responsible and is ultimately reinforcing.
I have an interest in adventure activity centres. I notice that you refer in your brief to the canoeing accident in Dunmore East. Michael Daly's father was the catalyst in getting action in this direction. You then move on to deal with the interdepartmental working group. I was pleased to introduce the Private Members' Bill that preceded and put pressure on you to broaden it. The relevant paragraph reads as though you acted to establish it. There was a gap because when the Bill was discussed in March 1999 there was pressure on you to have the interdepartmental working group report completed by June of that year. You did that. I am aware that Mr. Gilfoyle put much work into it. I am pleased that the Minister has introduced his own Bill and the pressure is on to get it through the Dáil before the summer recess. Responsibility now lies with the politicians. I am happy that we are moving in the right direction and that in the long-term those involved in adventure sports will see it as progressive that they are regulated.
The fishing vessel safety review group report, 1996, made over 60 recommendations. How happy are you at their level of implementation? Can you tell us what you have done?
This is an area in which I have a long-standing interest, for which there is no lobby and in which there is no continuous pressure to move the agenda forward. It is a reluctant agenda that must be dragged along. This puzzles me. While the pressure for change and regulation is high on the agenda of fishing industry organisations, it is not being pushed strongly by the industry generally. There are different streams in the fishing vessel safety review group report. The softer agenda, that is, grants for modern safety equipment such as life jackets and lifeboats, is almost completed. The modernisation and new vessel programme is almost completed also.
We are least satisfied with the extent to which we have succeeded in introducing and enforcing regulations, which is essential. The principal constraint in the Government sector is the difficulty in getting specialists in the parliamentary counsel's office to draft regulations. There is a logjam across all Departments. The Attorney General has agreed to commission an outside person to assist us in drafting, as we did with the Adventure Activities Standards Authority Bill. We will soon have new regulations for vessels between 12 and 24 metres. We will then go below that.
We have a consultation document on the compulsory wearing of life jackets on the decks of a fishing vessel. This is not a common safety feature in Europe, but the Minister is determined to do something about it. The document has been issued to interested groups on which to comment and we expect to introduce the measure soon. The date of its coming into effect will be delayed to give people a chance to get equipped, but we expect it to be in place within six months. We often hear of a deckhand being blown overboard when he might have been saved if he had been wearing a life jacket. There was a tragic incident off Castletownbere involving a young Corkman. The Minister met the family involved. The initiative was seized and the measure will come soon take effect.
A second draft programme was circulated in the industry on the introduction, on a phased basis, of compulsory training for all fishermen, of which there are about 6,000 or 7,000. We will start with new entrants and work upwards. It will take three or four years in all and require logistical backing and resources from State agencies. There is a comprehensive framework in place within Bord Iascaigh Mhara to support training. We will sign off on the programme this year and it will be implemented in following years. They are two fundamental, important changes emerging from the fishing vessel safety review group.
We are getting 12 additional marine surveyors and must up the pace of enforcement in the sector. Traditionally, there were no rules, which are not enforced because of lack of resources. Enforcement means vessels are tied up, something fishermen do not like. As part of the new regulatory regime we will have an educational awareness programme. We have the support of the fishing organisations and related groups. While it will be a serious process, it will take time to get down to ground level.
Is it a disappointment in the Department when you discuss marine search and rescue? While there are good elements, we have a deficient system along the south east coast. There was the tragedy involving the Air Corps pilots in Waterford. While the interdepartmental working group report was critical, we will not go into it because the Department of Defence also has a role. A system involving the use of an Alouette helicopter without night flying capability and which is only able to cover short distances is unsatisfactory given that this is a busy shipping area. Rather than use the two Air Corps helicopters directly under your control, you must make a judgment call to call on the commercially operated Sikorsky helicopter at Shannon or Dublin taking into account the logistics and distances involved. There was a tragedy in broad daylight on a ferry off Rosslare. As the Alouette helicopter was unable to be used, a helicopter had to be called in from Dublin. When in the Department of Defence I pressed the point that, given that one must wait for the ordinary mechanism to get a suitable helicopter, it should be possible to have one contract to ensure an effective 24 hour search and rescue service. This is the one component of the jigsaw which is missing in Waterford.
It is accepted that the present coverage is less than satisfactory. The agenda is set and clear-cut. The objective is to have four medium lift helicopters in place by the middle of next year or perhaps earlier. In addition to the two medium lift helicopters at Shannon and Dublin, there will be medium lift helicopters in Waterford and the north-west. That agenda is accepted and, I hope, will be delivered.
I am pleased to hear it is a priority with your Department. I know that it is a priority with the Department of Defence as regards siting and the involvement of the Air Corps. I would like to see a top level helicopter service operating as soon as possible.
I am a little concerned about the whole safety issue. I would like, under the headings we discussed, a more up-to-date report as to the procedures in place apropos the questions I asked about a particular vessel and other similar cases. I would also like to have a more up-to-date and detailed report on marine pollution and harbour safety.
They are very valid points. Perhaps Mr. Carroll will give us a chronological sequence of the whole Loran C issue, particularly the cost expended to date on the project.
I am joined here by Mr. Tom Power, Assistant Secretary in charge of forestry and Mr. Dermot McAree, head of our forestry inspectorate.
We received documentation from An Taisce which we circulated to members of the committee. I understand the clerk sent you a copy of that documentation. Members of the committee have had their chance to assess it so we will go straight into questions.
We received an amount of correspondence. Will the Secretary General give the meeting an appraisal of the situation as outlined in the correspondence from An Taisce with particular reference to the subsidies and the methodology in terms of qualification for "checks in the post" etc. and the potential for loss or gain as has been set out in the document?
I have seen the An Taisce letter and document. There is a whole range of issues involved and we could spend a long time going through them. The Coillte issue was raised specifically and I will deal with that. It has been in the public domain for some time and has been dealt with in parliamentary questions.
We have difficulty in getting replies to parliamentary questions on that issue.
I agree with that.
The advice from the Attorney General is that the Minister should not engage in debate on the pros and cons of this issue because there is so much at stake here. The Government has decided to take the question to the European Court. I am under the same advice with no disrespect.
It is a very interesting way of answering questions.
That is no disrespect to this committee or to the Dáil. I received a detailed audit query yesterday from the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General which listed a whole range of questions on this issue and I have been given a month to reply. I will have to consider carefully how to respond. On factual issues the Commission has disallowed payments the State had made of European funds to Coillte.
On what grounds?
On the grounds that they did not fit within the terms of the regulation.
How does it arise now that they do not fit within the terms given that it is an EU supported scheme and that the Department would have had to inform the European Commission originally with regard to the scheme drawn up?
This is the conundrum. The material supplied by An Taisce quoted parliamentary replies in the European Parliament by the Commissioners saying they had no difficulty with these payments to Ireland at an earlier stage. It was well known that the State treated Coillte as a private company - it is a registered private company - for the purpose of this scheme. Private companies generally are entitled to participate and attract premia for afforestation. In this country commercial State companies are regarded as private companies for the purposes of the Companies Acts and how they conduct their business.
The Commission contends that these are not private companies but that they are State or semi-State agencies. That is why it is deemed to be a direct subsidy to the State from a European institution. Is that correct?
That is now its contention. This came more or less out of the blue to us. Previous accounts had been cleared and audited by the Commission services and no issue had arisen. The amount of money at stake is about £13 million and we have already had to refund moneys. It is a very big issue so the Government decided to take this to the European Court.
There is more than that at stake. As we well know, those of us who had the temerity to put down parliamentary questions about Coillte over the past few years were very quickly informed by the institutions of the House that this was a private company and that the Minister was not answerable to the House with regard to questions of that nature. It now appears that the European institutions view it in a somewhat different light. They propose to treat Coillte as an appendage of the State. When the scheme was first set up, contact was obviously made with the European institutions. Were those institutions informed that Coillte was a semi-State body?
Our position is that that happened.
No doubt, you have documentation to support that.
The European Commission approved the proposals on that basis. It was aware of it.
It is certainly our view that it was aware of it. Formal approval is not given for every individual company. It does not arise in that form.
In the respect that this application was being made in a global way, was there a list of companies that were deemed to be qualified under the scheme by the Department of the Marine and Natural Resources?
No, the scheme does not work in that way. Individuals, be they companies, farmers or non-farmers, apply for grants for specific plantations.
To the Department.
The Department approves on the basis of support funds being available from the European Union in these cases.
How does the Department proceed then? Although I love planting trees, it is highly unlikely that I would make an application tomorrow. However, if I did so and I got support under this scheme from Europe, would it be possible that one, two or three years down the road, the people in Europe could say they did not agree and that the scheme was not approved? In such a case the Department would obviously be liable to me given that we would have entered into a contract.
A person could apply and be approved and it could subsequently turn out that he or she had supplied false information or something like that. That would be one issue. If it subsequently turned out that, through the fault of the Department, an individual was judged, in retrospect, not to meet the terms of the scheme, determining where liability lay would depend on the particular circumstances. One cannot make a general statement on that.
The Department would have paid me the subsidy or whatever the case may be.
It is not a subsidy.
Yes it is, on an annual basis. The Department would have started to pay me and once I have received this, I would assume I am entitled to the payment on an annual basis until the scheme comes to the end of its natural cycle after 20, 30 or 40 years. Is that correct?
What would happen then? Would the Department cease to pay me when the European institutions said they did not agree?
We have ceased to pay Coillte, pending resolution of this issue.
I am not going to ask any leading questions on that one. I think I have made my point.
How much of this £3.5 million has the European Union clawed back from Coillte? Is that what is in contention? From 1996 to 1998——
The State has repaid to the Commission £3.8 million in respect of the years 1996 to 1998. We ceased to pay ongoing premia to Coillte in autumn 1999, so we ceased to pay in the meantime.
I recognise that this is delicate. To what degree will this impact on Coillte's finances? Would it not have front-loaded many loans on the basis of the continuation of this for the operation of its programme for the years to 2010 or whatever the case may be? In other words, this is an issue of whether the premiums should be paid. The premiums were originally for private investors or farmers and it is a question of whether Coillte merits that. I understand that is the point of your argument to the European Court. On the basis of that and looking forward to ongoing projections of planting, it would probably have front-loaded loans on the basis of the continuum of payments. It would obviously be serious for its finances, would it not?
Coillte would not have purchased the land and made the investments in forestry if those premiums had not been available. I understand it borrowed in the region of £30 million on foot of this commitment to pay premia. It is a serious financial exposure for a company like Coillte.
Who are the main shareholders in Coillte? Are they the Department of the Marine and Natural Resources and the Department of Finance?
Will it not be difficult to classify it as a private company with the involvement of the Department of the Marine and Natural Resources and the Department of Finance?
Potentially it is a very serious issue for Coillte and the Government. The best result for us would be that we succeed at the European Court.
What was the final point?
The best result for us would be that we win our case at the European Court and that the premia are restored. As to what would happen if the result were otherwise, there are many serious policy and legal issues involved as between Coillte and the State. It would be hypothetical and probably not helpful to speculate on what would happen in that event.
When will the case come up before the European Court?
It has to be completed within two years. There is some indication that it will be dealt with later this year but that is outside our hands.
The Department would prefer it to be heard earlier rather than later.
Yes, the sooner this is clarified the better for everybody.
Because there is a degree of uncertainty.
Did this come like a bolt out of the blue? As there was a continuation of premiums over the years, would the Department have always anticipated there was nothing irregular or wrong?
Our forestry plan was actually approved by the Commission and launched with a foreword by the then Commissioner, Mr. Fischler. There has obviously been a dramatic change in how they see a State company like Coillte. That is a big surprise to us.
If I remember correctly, the document in front of Mr. Carroll dates back to the time when Deputy Yates was Minister. It contains very ambitions projections, which have been scaled back considerably. An Taisce has expressed much disappointment that Coillte is one of the sinners when it comes to planting broad leaves and it goes for the easy targets, the conifers. There was a target of 20% broad leaf planting, but Coillte has only achieved about5%. How helpful will the fact that Coillte has been faulted be to its case in Europe?
A target of 20% broad leaf planting was set and that is being pursued by various means. That national target is actually being achieved. It does not mean that each individual plantation achieves 20%. For the next programme that target has been increased to 30% by 2006.
My point is that, although you say it does not matter how the 20% is achieved, it has not been achieved by Coillte. Its planting target is only about 6% broad leaves. Since Coillte is a significant force in Irish forestry, is that likely to be an issue in the case before the European Court of Justice?
No, there is no relationship between those two issues. Coillte is a private commercial company which happens to be——
Well, you hope it is.
It has a commercial mandate and the reality of broad leaf planting, from a commercial perspective, is that it is difficult to justify the investment. Coillte is in the impossible position that, on the one hand, it is supposed to be a commercial operation but, on the other hand, it is being asked to pursue non-commercial objectives. There is tension between the national objectives and those of Coillte as a private company. However, we are achieving 20% broad leaf planting and we are moving towards 30%, which is a very significant proportion given the underlying economics. With broad leaves, there is an 80 to 90 year rotation. It is very difficult to justify investment at a commercial level on that basis. The new native woodlands scheme is specifically designed to secure the planting of 15,000 hectares over the next two years. That is a separate scheme. There is a good balance there.
Deputy Gildea wishes to voice concern with regard to Coillte, perhaps in relation to roads rather than trees, .
My first question relates to trees. Is there not a total contradiction here? The aim of the main shareholders in Coillte, namely, the Department of the Marine and Natural Resources and the Department of Finance, is to acquire and plant as much marginal land as possible in rural areas, especially in the west. On the other hand, the EU is financing the preservation of that same type of land through REPS and SACs. The two aims are contradictory. Marginal land which is used for large-scale afforestation is, in a sense, desecrated and will never revert to its original form, whereas the EU-funded schemes are seeking to protect such areas of land. Do you see a difficulty in those contradictory aims?
I do not think they are contradictory. The underlying driving force of forestry policy has three themes, one of which is to facilitate restructuring in the agricultural sector. There is surplus agricultural production in Europe and worldwide and there is a major push to take land out of agriculture. The rural development plan has various elements, including REPS, set-aside, headage payments and forestry. Forestry has the merit of using the land for another purpose. That is a fundamental consideration. The Chairman mentioned that our targets might be ambitious and perhaps they were. Since 1993, when EU funding for forestry came in, 325,000 acres have been afforested in Ireland. That is a lot of land. It facilitates the important objective of restructuring agriculture at national level.
The second aim of forestry policy is to build a major forestry industry in Ireland. There are 16,000 people working in this industry and gross output is in the region of £350,000 million per year. There is potential for further major development towards an internationally competitive integrated forestry sector. It may be a cliché to say so now, but Ireland's forest cover was down to less than 1% in the early 1900s, due to various policies originating elsewhere and driven by different commercial factors. We are now back up to 9% and the objective is to go to 17%. That involves a fundamental change in land utilisation.
In the context of another key focus of EU regulations, forestry is probably the single most important contribution which Ireland can make to meet its international commitments under the Kyoto protocol to reduce or mitigate carbon emissions. That is a fundamental and overriding national environmental objective. The agricultural sector is totally supported by subsidies, direct and indirect. Unless there is corresponding subsidisation of forestry, nobody will undertake it. The purpose of the forestry premium is to compensate farmers for the loss of income which they would otherwise get from REPS or from conventional agriculture. That is the fundamental rationale for it.
I will refer to site-specific issues. Afforestation must be undertaken at local level in a way which is compatible with environmental requirements, including SACs and other such designated areas. We impose a very comprehensive set of environmental regulations on forestry, which are exemplary in international terms. Fairly fundamental changes are also pending in the planning framework for forestry. Deputies will recall that the general planning exemption for forestry was removed in the last Planning and Development Act. That has to be brought into effect. Forestry cannot be brought totally within the planning framework but there will be a whole new set of rules, which are in the public domain in outline form. A stricter set of criteria and processes for forestry planting will be unveiled during the coming weeks. There is a certain tension between good local planning principles and the national objectives. We are in a learning process and I hope we will get the balance right.
Of the 325,000 acres planted since 1993, what percentage of that is on poorer marginal land in the west? I believe it is a high percentage and that it has a detrimental socio-economic impact on rural areas in the west.
I have not got those figures here but I will get them for the Deputy. I am informed by my professional adviser that it is a small proportion of the total area for a number of reasons, including environmental reasons, which have been mentioned, and also yield factors. There is no point in planting uneconomic crops. As a result of those two factors, I suspect it is a small proportion, but I will get comprehensive figures for the Deputy.
At a previous meeting when Mr. Carroll was here, I made a point about granitic peatlands and the impact coniferous afforestation can have on water quality due to increased acidification. Evidence from Alice Holt Lodge in Surrey, where the United Kingdom's Forestry Commission carries out research, shows that large amounts of coniferous plantation in granitic peatlands can have a detrimental effect on the reproduction of fish in streams and rivers. Has fresh information come to light since then?
I do not think so, although I may have sent you a copy of the new water quality guidelines that have come into effect. I mentioned the last time I was here that some mistakes were made when the forestry programme restarted which, I hope, would not be repeated and that the legacy of mistakes had to be dealt with. There is a risk in certain areas, but such areas are subject to stricter guidelines and procedures than a conventional area.
May I ask about the detrimental effects of Coillte on roads, especially in Donegal? Very strong views were expressed recently at a meeting of Donegal County Council about the ruthless manner in which Coillte uses rural roads which are of great use to those living in rural areas. Coillte should make a greater contribution to keeping the roads in an acceptable condition.
I am aware of the concerns of local authorities regarding areas where felling has commenced after a long period of time, as local roads are sometimes unable to cope. We have tried to deal with the problem by introducing harvesting guidelines which take account of concerns. Coillte is no different from any other haulier that uses heavy vehicles on small roads, so it is hard to single out the body. Back roads are used by many heavy goods vehicles, such as large meat lorries and a lot of damage can be caused. Saw mills, rather than Coillte, probably do most of the haulage. I have no solution for this problem but I am concerned by it, although it must be remembered that it is evident beyond the timber sector. If a mine or similar facility were opened in a remote area, roads originally built for horses and carts would be used by lorries.
An Taisce recently criticised Coillte's apparent failure to meet standards set by international bodies. In fairness to Coillte, it voluntarily applied for accreditation to an internationally recognised certification system run by the Forest Stewardship Council. Coillte is a large organisation with many systems and its initial application identified faults which have since been rectified. Coillte has gained international recognition and was awarded a certificate for meeting international requirements. If we are to be fair to Coillte, we should acknowledge its achievements. Using information available from an interim report, An Taisce pointed to faults that had been identified during a process. Anyone familiar with such processes, for example, a health and safety audit or a financial audit, knows its purpose is to identify weaknesses which can be rectified. Coillte did not have to enter the process, but came through it with flying colours. It is a significant achievement which needs to be recognised.
Deputy Gildea's point about roads is a valid one. Forests tend to be located in rural areas where roads were not designed for heavy traffic. Those who work in the forestry industry tend to hack up roads when transporting trees. Public representatives hear many complaints from people. The EU co-finance scheme gives funding to councils each year and a chunk of that money is spent on improving forestry roads. There is never enough funding to strengthen roads as we would like, so I think Deputy Gildea has a valid point. From a public relations perspective, it is important for Coillte to be more proactive as consumers criticise forest authorities because of the condition of roads. Mr. Carroll mentioned 1993. What is the status of those who planted forestry in that year? There were commitments that enhanced premiums would apply to the pioneers of forestry, but there appears to have been a change regarding whether improved premiums will be given.
The Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, recently answered a parliamentary question on this issue. He was disappointed not to be able to announce agreement regarding the back-dating of recent premium increases. He explained the position, but it is a policy issue.
I do not want to go into that. People contacted me to say they had been sure this would happen and they are disappointed as a result. Has the European Commission refused to pay for this, so that the Exchequer will have to pay the enhanced premium if it is to be paid? Is this likely to be announced in two or three months' time or has it gone by the board completely?
I should have mentioned that the European Commission seems to be taking a tougher line as regards a range of policies, especially financial ones. It refused to accept the principle of giving increases from a current date to those who previously planted trees. The Commission refused to fund such increases and the book has been closed. In the absence of European funding, the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, undertook to pursue the possibility of Exchequer funding, but the Government has not agreed to provide it. This issue has not been finalised as negotiations are not yet complete. The Minister will pursue his agenda to get Exchequer funding if possible, but it cannot be guaranteed. It would be misleading for the Minister or me to imply that this will happen in the near future.
What level of funding would be required?
Almost £3.5 million would be needed from the Exchequer each year.
For how long would that money be required?
It is a significant time - about 15 years.
You say the level of Exchequer funding to improve the premia is £3.5 million this year and for the next ten years it would be £3.5 million also?
Yes, that is right. There would be a very significant Exchequer commitment. There are also issues of principle and concern as to the legal and policy implications of the State picking up the tab where the EU refuses to fulfil commitments of a policy nature, if not necessarily of a legal nature.
When did the EU decide it was not prepared to pick up that tab?
I recall being at meetings with Ministers and Commissioner Fischler very early last year. They have been obstinate on this and we have kept pursuing it, but the conclusion was reached towards the end of last year that there would be no budging at European level on this issue.
Replies to some parliamentary questions adopt an optimistic stance that something could happen in that direction. Do you know that? That is why an expectation has built up among the people who have been involved in planting. On a national basis people were meeting Members of the Oireachtas to push their case, hence expectations built up.
Within the forestry sector and among forestry professionals, including administrators, looking at this in isolation in the interests of the national policy objective and inequity, the view is that these increases should be given. The Government has to make decisions in the context of the total picture of policy.
We might have to wait for an election to dictate the policy in that direction.
Are directives given in respect of the Kyoto Protocol regarding suitable types of trees?
There is no such directive but the very valuable analysis done by the research body in the forestry sector, COFORD, shows that conifers are the best carbon sequesters and give the best benefit, particularly in the short and medium terms. That is not driving——
I have a number of questions about this. It is an important issue and should be borne in mind. I presume the Department has calculated the total number of trees required to comply with the Kyoto Protocolumn What is that number and what species are involved? Lombardy Poplar is not a native species but it is a good sequester of carbon. Maybe there is a scale, from the best to the worst.
It depends on the time period, whether one is talking about a ten, 20, 30, 40 or 80 year time period.
Hardwoods are not good for that purpose. That is obvious.
I am being taken into deep technical ground here. The Sika Spruce is the best. Other conifers are second best, then broadleaves. There is user-friendly literature available and I might send it to the Deputy.
There is a scale and it is important we know that as Members of the House. We are educated regularly by people who do not always have the correct information as to what is best. I spent a lot of time sniffing around for information and have some that did not come from the Department. A scale can be drawn up setting out the potential of each species and that can be related to the growing span. I would like that information as soon as possible.
There is an argument in terms of broadleaves versus conifers. There are certain species of tree which are more suitable to certain terrain and not enough information has been given on that. I would like more information available to us, as Members of the House and of this committee. I had an argument with someone a couple of weeks ago who had a very serious issue with particular conifers on the grounds that the acidity created by them poisoned the land. They missed the point completely that such species thrive best in soils which are acidic. There is a lot of information which must be readily available to Coillte and the Department and I would like it too.
I have a series of questions down about special areas of conservation and heritage sites. I am a member of another committee which has also pursued the issue. I am anxious we do the right thing for heritage and I am a little concerned about some of the forestry work taking place, especially since there is a possibility that interesting sites or burial grounds could be subsumed into the forestry industry and never seen again. This has been denied but I was born in a part of the country inundated with ring forts and underground caverns of historical, cultural and, in some cases, architectural significance. To what extent is an examination done of the terrain prior to afforestation to protect against the possibility of damage to such locations? This is not a matter for Coillte other than in terms of the property it owns. These sites may disappear in a couple of hundred years' time. They may disappear from view completely unless something more is done for them by way of promotion to make them available for tourism and education. In other countries such locations are excavated by archaeological experts and are worked on in such a way as to not only protect them for the present generation but also for future generations. To what extent can Coillte influence, or engage in, that process?
We have a set of professional guidelines dealing with all the issues the Deputy has raised and there is particular concern about unrecorded sites. Through the consultation and planning process, particularly in consultation with Dúchas, the process is designed to identify these and see what is the appropriate provision to be made in afforestation to deal with them. The system is there to deal with this.
Does it work?
By and large, it does.
It is great to say there is an interesting burial mound hidden under 300 acres of forestry, preserved there for future generations. No one will use it and it is preserved in a way that is of no benefit to anybody.
We rely on Dúchas, work very closely with it and are guided by its advice at all times. We bring to its attention anything of significance.
When will Dúchas be here again, Chairman? I mentioned other things which I presume we will hear about in due course.
I thank Mr. Carroll and his officials. The committee will meet in private session on Tuesday, 12 June and then hear submissions from the National University of Ireland in public session. It will also consider the annual report of the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Appropriation Accounts of the Office of the Revenue Commissioners.