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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 7 Jun 1995

Vol. 454 No. 1

Harbours Bill, 1995: Second Stage.

I move:

That the Bill now be read a Second time.

This Bill, which comprises 102 sections and six Schedules, is the first major revision of commercial harbours legislation since 1946. The purpose of the legislation is to restructure the management framework of port authorities by establishing State commercial companies to manage the 12 bigger ports. Before outlining in detail the main provisions of the new legislation I would like to talk briefly about the existing legislation, the Harbours Act, 1946.

The 1946 Act had its genesis in 1926 when, by a resolution of both Houses of the Oireachtas, the Ports and Harbours Tribunal was established to inquire into the position of the several ports and harbours in the State. The tribunal reported in 1930. Its two main recommendations were that the provisions of the various general Acts relating to harbours should be replaced by a general consolidating Act and, second, that the Department of Industry and Commerce be given the general oversight of harbour administration and placed as regards harbours in much the same position as the Department of Local Government and Public Health occupied in relation to local authorities. The Bill to implement the tribunal's recommendations was ready for introduction in 1940.

However, owing to the abnormal circumstances affecting our ports and harbours which then existed, its introduction was postponed. The Second Stage of the Harbours Bill, 1945, was taken in Dáil Éireann on Wednesday, 28 November 1945. The Bill was introduced by the then Minister for Industry and Commerce, Mr. Seán Lemass, and contributors to the debate included such well-known figures as General Mulcahy, John A. Costello and Maurice Dockrell. That legislation came into effect in 1946 and still remains the main body of legislation governing commercial seaports.

In the interim years techniques in shipping and cargo handling have changed dramatically. On the one hand there has been the growth of large bulk shipments, on the other the almost universal use of unitised systems, either lift-on/lift-off or roll-on/roll-off. These changes have provided ports across the world with new challenges. The international response has tended towards the greater "commercialisation" of ports. Ireland's ports have been severely constrained in their ability to respond commercially because of the restricted legislation under which they operate.

For this reason the then Minister for the Marine, Mr. John Wilson, established the Commercial Harbours Review Group in October 1990 whose task was to identify those aspects of existing legislation which constrained a modern port; the structure of harbour boards needed to be examined as did the extent of ministerial and departmental control on day-to-day activities of ports. The review group included a broad representation of interests associated with ports — the Irish Port Authorities' Association, IBEC, a transport economist, a port user, a local authorities' representative, a SIPTU representative and a representative from the Department of the Marine. The group presented its report and recommendations in July 1992.

I summarise the major findings of the review group as follows: Ireland, of all countries in the EC, was probably the most heavily dependent on external trade for its future prosperity; the crucial importance of seaports to the economy was highlighted by the fact that in 1990, 80 per cent by volume and almost 55 per cent by value of the total external trade of the State passed through seaports; having regard to Ireland's remoteness from the main European and world markets, there was an urgent need to bring the overall performance of Irish seaports up to a level at least on a par with the best international standards; cargo handling and shipping techniques had changed dramatically in recent years with the advent of unitisation and large bulk shipments; the pace of change had outstripped the ability of seaports in Ireland and elsewhere to cope effectively with the challenges arising from it; current legislation i.e., the Harbours Act, 1946, was outdated to present day requirements being unduly restrictive with ministerial controls more in keeping with procedures in local authorities; a survey of international trends indicated that seaports were being restructured and commercialised in many countries and cargo handling — stevedoring — activity was identified as a serious disability in many ports.

The key recommendation of the review group was that, to facilitate commercialisation, commercial State companies should be set up to manage certain ports. The group also recommended that the commercial mandate under which the new port companies would operate should give them flexibility to operate as truly commercial enterprises.

The Bill now before the House is based on the main recommendations of the review group. The Bill provides for: (a) the setting up of commercial State companies to manage and operate the ports of Arklow, Cork, Drogheda, Dublin Dundalk, Foynes, Galway, New Ross, Shannon, Waterford and Wicklow — these ports are at present managed by harbour authorities in accordance with the Harbours Act, 1946; (b) the setting up of a State commercial company to manage and operate Dún Laoghaire Harbour which is at present managed and operated by the Department of the Marine; (c) the functions of the companies so established; and (d) a revision of the law relating to pilotage.

I do not think it necessary at this stage to deal at any length with the details of the provisions of the Bill. However, I would like to briefly described its main provisions. The new companies will be formed and registered under the Companies Acts and the State will be the sole shareholder in each company. It is essential of course that thorough preparations will need to be undertaken before the companies are established. Such preparations include the installation of modern accounting systems; the preparation of commercial accounts, including up-to-date balance sheets; an assessment of pension assets and liabilities; a review of each harbour's trading performance and medium projections of same; a forecast of capital expenditure needs and of how these would be financed and an examination of staffing levels.

Existing harbour authority boards range in number from nine members to 29 and comprise representatives of local authorities, chambers of commerce, trade union interests, IBEC, the livestock trade, shipping and ministerial nominees.

The view taken by the review group was that structures of this nature — large representative authorities comprising up to 29 members — were no longer attuned to the competitive requirements of a modern port and were not the most efficient way of managing ports. The group recommended that the board of directors of the new port companies should have seven members, including employee representation, the chairman and chief executive. It further recommended that the non-executive directors should be appointed by the Minister with a five year term of office, should be drawn from the commercial sector of the economy and that persons with a vested business interest in the affairs of a port should not be given board representation. However, following publication of the review group's report there were numerous requests for a continuation of the existing representation. Having considered the matter the Government decided that the number of directors of each company should be not more than 12 and that three local authority directors should be appointed to each port company.

The Bill, as now presented, provides that the number of directors of each company will not be more than 12. The directors, with the exception of the chief executive, the worker and local authority directors, will be appointed and may be removed from office by the Minister with the consent of the Minister for Finance. Each director, except the chief executive, will be appointed for five years and will be eligible for reappointment.

In relation to worker directors, the norm in public sector bodies such as Aer Lingus, Aer Rianta, An Post, etc, is that worker directors made up one-third of the board's full membership. However, the numbers employed by the harbour authorities — and to be employed by the new port companies — are small compared to other semi-State bodies such as An Post and one-third worker representation on the new port boards could be viewed as over-representation.

Accordingly, the strategy developed is that the staff of companies whose employees exceed 50 in number will elect two worker directors; the staff of companies whose employees are more than 30 but not more than 50 in number will elect one worker director. Where the staff of a company is fewer than 30 in number, the Minister will, following consultation with recognised trade unions, appoint a person as the representative of the interests of the employees of that company.

There was a strong demand for continued representation of local authorities on the new port companies as such representation would maintain the close relationship between city, town and port. It was argued that local ports play a key role in the economic life of the town or city associated with the port and that there must be close day-to-day interaction between the port and the local authority. It was suggested that local authority representation on the port authority provided a long established and effective means of ensuring full co-operation between both bodies which the Government agreed was essential and considered that the inclusion of local authority representation was merited on those grounds. Accordingly, the Minister will appoint three persons, nominated in the prescribed manner by a prescribed local authority, to be each a director of a company. Regulations prescribing the manner in which such persons are to be nominated will be made by the Minister. The chief executive of each port company shall, by reason of his office, be a director of the company. The remaining directors will be appointed by the Minister for the Marine with the consent of the Minister for Finance and will, in general, be drawn from the professional and business community. TDs, Senators and MEPs will be disqualified from becoming directors of port companies.

I will outline the powers and duties of the new port companies. The principal objects of each company will be to: (a) take all proper measures for the management, control, operation and development of its harbour and the approach channels thereto and provide reasonable facilities, services and accommodation in the harbour for vessels, goods and passengers; (b) promote investment in its harbour; (c) engage in any business activity, either alone or in conjunction with other persons, that it considers to be advantageous to the development of its harbour and (d) utilise and manage the resources available to it in a manner consistent with the foregoing objects.

In addition, each company will be empowered to: (i) take such steps either alone or in conjunction with other persons as are necessary for the efficient operation and management of its harbour; (ii) appropriate any part of its harbour to the exclusive use of any person; (iii) engage in activities outside the State, related to functions in respect of its harbour, which will promote the interests of trade and tourism in the State; (iv) charge rates in respect of vessels using the harbour, goods shipped, transhipped, unshipped or stored within the harbour and any service provided by the company; (v) lease, acquire and dispose of property; (vi) make by-laws for the use of the harbour, safety of navigation within the harbour and generally for the regulation of the harbour.

Each company will be required to submit annually to the Minister a copy of its annual accounts and the auditor's report on the accounts. Accounts will be audited by commercial auditors.

Each port company will be empowered to borrow, with ministerial consent, up to a limit of 50 per cent of the company's fixed assets.

The Minister for Finance may, in certain circumstances, guarantee borrowings by port companies.

Persons who immediately before vesting day were employees of a harbour authority or of the Department of the Marine in the case of Dún Laoghaire Harbour will not, while in the service of the port company, be brought to less beneficial conditions of service or of remuneration to which they were subject immediately before vesting day. Each port company will be required to establish and maintain a superannuation fund.

The Government, in the context of the new Harbours Bill, was conscious of the need to address long-standing pension difficulties in certain ports which arose because many harbour authorities operated a "pay as you go" system for pensions, instead of a specific pensions fund. This system no longer accords with acceptable standards and I have now initiated action to tackle the issue.

As I already stated, it is essential that thorough preparations will need to be undertaken before the new port companies are established. In this context I have employed Davy Kelleher McCarthy, economic consultants, to undertake a comprehensive study of the financial status of the harbour authorities. I expect a report from DKM in September with recommendations on long-term funding needs for the harbours. I will then consider, in consultation with the Minister for Finance and the harbour authorities, how to ensure that the harbours can meet their pensions schemes requirements. I have written to the Pensions Board advising it of the measures I am taking to ensure that harbour authority pension schemes are secure.

The Bill contains a provision whereby port companies may apply to the Minister for amalgamation and the Minister, if of the opinion that, for sound business reasons, the ports concerned should be amalgamated, may by order provide for such amalgamation provided the companies concerned are agreeable. An amalgamation order will have to be confirmed by a resolution of both Houses of the Oireachtas.

In respect of each port company the Minister will be empowered to: issue directions to the company relating to safety, the levels of harbour charges, the development of harbours and any other matters; stipulate, in consultation with the company, financial or other targets, including the payment of dividends in respect of shares in the company, to be achieved by the company.

Each port company will be required to organise pilotage in either of two ways: (i) by employing pilots directly or (ii) by licensing self-employed pilots to undertake pilotage operations. Each port company will be empowered to make by-laws for the operation and organisation of pilotage services, qualifications for pilots, the grant of pilotage exemption certificates and for other matters related to pilotage.

The new legislation is designed to ensure that the ports will be able to operate as truly commercial and self-sufficient enterprises free from undue control by the State. The re-organisation of the commercial seaports together with a continuation of EU aid for port development will give the ports the flexibility they need to operate as truly commercial enterprises and will greatly improve their efficiency and effectiveness to the benefit of exporters, the agricultural and industrial sectors of the economy and our tourist trade. The main thrust of the new legislation will be to relax ministerial control while increasing accountability for operational and financial performance.

In tandem with the new legislation, a port development policy is also in place and significant investment in portal development will take place between now and 1999. The objectives of this investment are to facilitate the expansion of industry and agriculture; to facilitate the expansion of tourism, and to facilitate regional development.

In line with these objectives the need for more intensive competition; inadequate frequency of services; poor quality-outdated infrastructure leading to inefficiencies; some selective capacity deficiencies; inadequate port handling equipment; capital dredging; and repair of structural faults are being addressed.

The investment programme of £135 million is designed to achieve the elimination of bottlenecks; and expansion of port throughput by end 2000 of 46 per cent in the case of unitised freight and 40 per cent for bulk freight; a 15 per cent real reduction in combined port and shipping costs and the stimulation of a reduction in shipping charges which will have a significant impact on the productive sectors of the economy.

The port development programme together with the reorganisation of the commercial seaports will gear the ports to meet the challenges of the 21st century.

The review group recommended that responsibility for harbours of lesser commercial significance, 13 in all, be transferred to local authorities. The harbours involved are Annagassan, Bantry Bay, Ballyshannon, Baltimore and Skibbereen, Buncrana, Cappa Pier in Kilrush, Kinsale, River Moy in Ballina, Sligo, Tralee and Fenit, Westport, Wexford and Youghal.

This proposal was discussed in detail with the majority of the harbour authorities concerned and the City and County Managers Association and did not attract general support. The Government, having considered the matter, agreed to the proposal that rather than providing for automatic transfer the Bill should contain a framework which would allow these small harbours to continue to operate under the Harbours Act, 1946, (to be set up as commercial State companies or to be transferred to local authorities.

The Bill, as now drafted, contains these empowering provisions. The position to be adopted in this regard will be considered on its merits on a port by port basis once the new legislation is in place. Decisions will be taken based on the present and anticipated level of commercial traffic at the ports concerned and the present and anticipated financial position of the ports concerned. Proposals to transfer responsibility for any of the smaller harbours to the relevant local authority will be subject to the consent of the Minister for the Environment. Likewise, any proposal to establish a State commercial company in respect of any of the harbours concerned will have to be confirmed by a resolution of both Houses of the Oireachtas.

The Bill contains an enabling provision which empowers the Minister to designate Dingle Harbour as a fishery harbour centre once the new legislation is in place. This means that responsibility for the harbour would be transferred to the Department of the Marine which already manages and operates five fishery harbour centres. However, the general question of the management of fishery harbours falls for review in the context of a major review, announced by my predecessor on 1 March 1995, of the organisation and management structures of the fishery services including the fishery harbour centres. I will assess the future management plans for Dingle Harbour and other major fishery harbours in the light of the outcome of that review which it is intended to have completed later this year.

In the course of preparation of the legislation a comprehensive consultation process on the purposes and content of the Bill has taken place with interested parties — mainly the harbour authorities concerned and the Social Partners — and, in so far as was possible, their views have been taken on board. I am confident that the principles of the Bill will be generally acceptable; I accept, however, that differences of opinion may arise on its detail. Further submissions on the legislation and, in particular, amendments which would make it more effective, will be considered and any amendments considered justified will be brought forward on Committee Stage.

Throughput at the commercial ports in 1980 amounted to 19.4 million tonnes; the corresponding figure for 1993 was 28.4 million tonnes — an increase of 46 per cent. The importance of our ports to the Irish economy cannot be over-emphasised. The measures outlined here today, namely, restructuring of the management framework of port authorities through the early introduction of commercial semi-State enterprises; an emphasis on investment in strategic corridors to increase frequency of service and benefit of economies of scale; the taking of appropriate steps to ensure adequate competition within and between ports and in shipping services; and a major programme of investment, supported by community funds, in-port infrastructure and facilities are designed to ensure adequate and internationally competitive capacity.

For all those reasons I commend the Bill to the House.

I welcome the new Minister for the Marine to the House. We on this side welcome the general principles of the Bill. I hope I do not unnerve the Minister by telling him this is approximately the fifth attempt to bring a harbours or Shannon Estuary Bill into the House. On each of those occasions the Dáil collapsed.

That will not happen this time.

That is the history of the past ten or 12 years.

We all accept there has been a major shift in the pattern of trade and commerce and it is necessary to be flexible in the management of our harbours and the way we facilitate the corridors which enable us to export so much of our trade. As the Minister stated, up to 80 per cent of our external trade passes through our ports. In a very competitive world and at a time when our economy depends to a large extent on exports, the commercial freedom, flexibility and other provisions incorporated in the Bill are desirable.

It is fair to contend that we were not keeping pace with the international shipping business and that the existing legislation, dating back to 1946, is incapable of exploiting our harbour resources. There is no argument against the restructuring of the management framework of port authorities and the early introduction of commercial semi-State enterprises, the emphasis on investment in strategic corridors in order to increase the frequency of services and benefit of economies of scale or the taking of appropriate steps to ensure adequate competition within and between ports and shipping services, along with the essential major investment programme with the support of domestic and European Union funds.

The process by which all this happened began a number of years ago with the establishment of the Commercial Harbours Review Group. This Bill enshrines most of its recommendations. On that basis the Fianna Fáil Party will be supporting the Bill in principle and will not insist on a vote at the conclusion of Second Stage.

Since I am not personally constrained by any involvement or work on the earlier preparation of this Bill, I want to put a few points to the Minister which are worthy of consideration. The first is that, while he has incorporated the main thrust of the recommendations of the review group, the Bill in its entirety provides too much for the heavy hand of ministerial intervention in circumstances in which the principle is to create maximum flexibility and commercial freedom in the management and operation of our harbours. I will go into greater detail later as to where I perceive that intervention as excessive. On Committee Stage we will table amendments to eradicate some of those interventions.

The second area of great potential is marine leisure. In the early stages of preparation of this Bill there may not have been an appreciation of the extent to which this leisure is developing and its further potential. I would welcome greater direction in the Bill as to how the promotion of these leisure activities can be developed. Maritime leisure and recreational facilities are taking on a totally new thrust and it is vital that greater emphasis be placed on this aspect of tourism.

In the orders and regulations laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas, there may very well be detailed provisions the Houses will not have an opportunity to debate. Matters of fundamental principle should be covered in the Bill rather than introduced later in that manner.

Referring to specific sections of the Bill, the question of sale and leasing, particularly short term leases, should not require ministerial approval. The respective State commercial companies, under their new constitution, should have the requisite flexibility to take decisions of this kind. There does not appear to be reference in the Bill to the appointment of chairmen or how that is to be done.

The provision with which I have greatest difficulty is section 17 (3) (h) which states:

...the aggregate amount standing invested (whether by the purchase of shares or the provision of loans or guarantees of loans) by the company in undertakings (other than subsidiaries) shall not exceed £250,000, without the approval of the Minister given with the consent of the Minister for Finance.

As the Minister well knows, that is the kind of money that would not buy a second-hand tug. Since he has the broad support of the House in his endeavours, to require the approval of the Ministers for the Marine and Finance at that level is excessive, particularly when one bears in mind that the cost of the terminal building in Dún Laoghaire is in the region of £20 million and that the facilities in their entirety provided over many years will probably amount to £1 billion. We talk about real commercial flexibility, the opportunity for the management of companies to develop, to exploit these resources, to be more competitive. It may well be that certain controls will be required in the case of smaller ports, but in the case of major ones that ministerial intervention is totally excessive and unnecessary and it should be eliminated or at least substantially reduced.

The Minister might also inform us how he envisages the valuation of the assets and depreciation policy evolving. It is possible to incur very heavy depreciation but where maintenance work in ports is undertaken each year, the depreciation involved should be very low. Perhaps the Minister would also inform the House how he sees the performance audit developing. I have in mind responsibility for smaller piers, which have an inherent social benefit. I am not arguing in any sense against the relevant company being responsible for the upkeep and maintenance of such piers, but it is important that the Minister should state clearly whether the requisite social benefit is deemed to form part of that total competitive business or whether, as was done in some previous Bill, we should insert some extra provision for these types of activities.

It is crucial that directors be appointed with an interest in our ports and capable of devoting the time and energy to what is involved. It has been represented to me that the number of directors should be increased somewhat, particularly from the local authorities. On the matter of worker directors the Minister has achieved a balance which is quite acceptable. It is important that these companies be established as quickly as possible. We will be tabling amendments to increase the number of directors and in order to ascertain to what extent members of local authorities can be given greater representation. This would be an extremely difficult problem in parts of the mid-west. Obviously the Minister's consideration must extend beyond his constituency of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown where there may not be any problems. In places like Foynes, Shannon and Limerick harbours, there would be at least five different local authorities involved and one would need to be Solomon to devise regulations to meet the wishes of everybody concerned. Nobody would wish to return to the days when there was extended membership of the old harbour boards. Tighter control of boards with wider membership is recommended and widely accepted but a balance of acceptability must be found, particularly in areas that are disenfranchised in the context of the new provisions.

On the question of the harbour police, queries have been raised by people representing Dún Laoghaire as to whether a warrant should be granted outside the terminal building area or whether the Garda should be involved. Representations have been made to me in this context and I ask the Minister to explain what is involved and whether these considerations can be taken on board.

On the question of the disposal of land and the ministerial sanction required, where we are talking about property not required for the core business, it is essential that new commercial companies be allowed to operate without the requirement of sanction. That will augur well for the future in terms of the relationship between Government, Departments and commercial companies in circumstances where we are requiring them to make a profit. Such freedom is essential to allow these companies operate without the cumbersome legal requirements which have hitherto obtained.

The question of charges has been raised also and perhaps, during the course of his reply, the Minister might indicate how these will be imposed and how these new areas will be mapped out. Certain conflicts have already arisen. Inquiries have been made as to whether Foynes will have responsibility for the Alcan area and other such matters have been raised.

Overall, the general principles in the Bill meet the requirements of establishing the companies on the basis of the committee report. It is clear that on many of these aspects there is wide support. Because of the sheer volume of trade and commerce now transacted through the ports, and the need to radically develop and open up these corridors, we must ensure that in legislation we do not adopt the restrictive, heavy-handed approach previously adopted not just by this Government. With regard to various recommendations made over the years, particularly by the Department of Finance, there was always a requirement for ministerial sanction over matters which should have been the responsibility of a truly commercial and flexible board. The main thrust of our objections, if one could call them that, is primarily in that area. I have referred already to the nonsensical requirement for ministerial sanction over levels of borrowing which would be so inflexible as to make a nonsense of the notion of commercial freedom.

I appeal to the Minister when replying, and on Committee Stage, to show a little more understanding of what will be necessary to achieve our aim to see the maximum potential achieved by these ports and the most competitive prices afforded which would enable our products to be exported in increasing volumes. I ask him to agree to a suitable amendment which would paint a broader picture of our ports, harbours and marine leisure activities so that we can amplify the good that can be achieved in the context of what is provided so far in the Bill.

I wish the new Minister every success in his portfolio. I have no doubt that, his constituency colleague, the Minister of State Deputy Gilmore and he, will make a cohesive and compatible team at the Department. I warn him, however, that five or six of his predecessors, including myself, sought to put a Harbours Bill through the Dáil without success; it usually fell with the falling of the Government. I hope this Bill will not meet a similar fate.

This Bill designates company status on 12 ports. That leaves 14 other ports on the schedule, ten of whom have virtually no traffic. There were four other ports in a different category and among those was the port of Sligo, which had a throughput of between 32,000 and 91,000 tonnes of traffic in 1990. I am concerned about the effects of this Bill on the port of Sligo. I know the recommendation of the review group is that the responsibility for most of the small or scheduled harbours should be transferred to the local authorities. Local authority type practices and controls are not compatible with the market driven approach required in modern commercial harbours. It would be grossly unfair to leave Sligo port in a type of limbo between State company and local authority responsibility where it would only stagnate and decline because of the absence of EU recognition. It must have State company status for its harbour if it is to tackle the problems identified in the report and develop commercially and successfully.

Sligo is the regional capital of the north west and the centre for access to transport by road, rail, sea and air from neighbouring counties both North and South. A considerable part of the hinterland of the catchment area is located in the North. It has traditionally served commerce within a radius of 40 or 50 miles and the port has been used as a regional resource for more than 200 years.

The north west region is always at a natural disadvantage as far as economic development is concerned due to its remote location and relatively undeveloped infrastructure. To maintain the necessary services and overcome the underlying causes of unemployment and emigration in this region requires special consideration involving both national and EU transport policies to ensure the possibility of a more even distribution of economic prosperity. I am sure that is something with which the Minister will readily agree.

The port of Sligo is an entirely commercial port. It has real business significance for firms in the area as well as providing permanent or temporary employment both directly and indirectly. The fact that it is the only real commercial port between Derry and Galway gives it a strategic importance for this area. Considerable sums of public and private moneys have been invested in the vicinity in recent times. The port has been put on a sound financial basis. The development proposals for it are market driven but its capacity to develop and to meet future needs will be severely restricted unless it can operate on a level with other ports, both North and South. Major developments are taking place at the port of Derry. The review group proposes that responsibility for the small ports be transferred to the local authorities but I doubt if the local authority in County Sligo or anywhere else would claim to have the facilities for such activities. They have neither the experience nor financial resources to manage and develop such an undertaking.

I have met with Sligo's Harbour Commissioners, as has the Minister's predecessor. They believe they cannot deal in isolation with the problems of excessive cargo handling costs, restrictive legislation, lack of investment, inadequate facilities and the need for more commercial freedom in the conduct of their port business. They believe the port should be treated in the same way as other significant commercial harbours, benefiting from appropriate State and EU funding, and that the proposed State company status would enable them to address the challenge of providing an efficient, competitive and commercially viable transport service for the whole of the north west.

Sligo port dates back many years. In records as early as 1553 Sligo is referred to as the best harbour town in the country. It has, however, been outpaced in the meantime but the availability of harbour facilities was and continues to be a key to economic activity in the area. Taking into account the remoteness of the west coast and the isolation of the north west, the most peripheral region in the European Union sharing an important internal border with Northern Ireland, there is a clear need for an integrated regional transport system covering road, rail, sea and air. Sligo port is an established link in this system and should receive appropriate State and EU support to enable it to continue its role of facilitating the overall economic development of the region.

The peace dividend means enhanced cross-Border activity and there are plans to greatly improve the road network linking Sligo to its neighbouring counties of Fermanagh and Tyrone. There are very real possibilities for increasing commercial use of Sligo port to import to and export from Northern Ireland. Between Galway and Derry there is no comparable port to serve commercial traffic and it is vital in both the national and regional interest that it is maintained and the facilities are upgraded, reflecting its strategic importance as a vital element in our regional infrastructure.

Sligo, as part of the Border region, suffers from levels of unemployment that are considerably worse than the average for the EU. It is affected by its distance from the national capital and as such is covered by the INTERREG II programme, which aims to improve the economic position of the cross-Border regions North and South. It is clear that Sligo port, the only west coast commercial harbour in the peripheral Border region which is eligible for INTERREG funding, should receive serious consideration for support from this EU programme.

Considerable sums of money have been spent in recent times by Sligo Harbour Commissioners and by the State in providing and maintaining the facilities at the port. As recently as 1984, when I was very much involved, major dredging operations at a cost of £619,000 were carried out to increase the depth of the approach channel and berthing areas. A very good job was done in keeping the port commercially viable. Since then, from its own resources more than £10,000 annually has been spent on regular maintenance dredging to retain the required depth. Again from its own resources in the past two years the harbour board undertook the reconstruction of a deep water jetty to enable the port to handle vessels up to 3,000 tonnes capacity. This involved capital expenditure of £128,000 which was not State aided in any way. The volume of traffic has been upwards with the importation of coal, timber, fertilisers, salt, cement and bitumen and the export of forest products.

Towards the end of his speech the Minister indicated that he would have empowering facilities to grant a port such as Sligo State company status or to transfer it to a local authority. With its potential for increased traffic, its strategic importance and financial viability it merits, even in its present state, inclusion by way of an amendment to the Bill in the designated ports. The Minister will be convinced of the value of this. His predecessor, who met the Sligo Harbour Board, was convinced by the arguments put forward. It would be of value to the region and to the port to be listed among the designated ports.

The Minister is very well briefed on the situation and I appeal to him to proceed by way of a Committee Stage amendment to this Bill rather than wait. While the drive and enthusiasm is there and traffic is coming from across the Border it is important the Minister should proceed by way of amendment to the Bill.

(Wexford): I congratulate the Minister on his appointment and wish him well. During my time in the Department of the Environment he was Opposition spokesperson and I found him courteous and willing to put forward good ideas. I am sure he will listen to Members from this side of the House.

This Bill is long overdue. Our senior spokesperson, Deputy Michael Smith, said that when Bills such as this were introduced Governments fell but the Minister is quite confident it will not happen this time. The previous Bill was introduced in 1946 by the then Minister for Industry and Commerce, Seán Lemass who, as we all know, became Taoiseach. Perhaps Deputy Barrett may do likewise at some stage in the future. It is a long time since a Bill was introduced and I welcome this Bill in principle. We have a number of suggestions and will table amendments on Committee Stage. As an island nation we depend on trade for our future prosperity. It is important that our ports are up to the standard of our counterparts in the European Union so that we can compete. It is welcome that 12 ports have been named. Deputy Nealon made a case for including Sligo port in that list and there is nothing wrong with that.

It is important that the ports are viable and properly represent the regions in which they are situated. Because of industrial relations and other problems in ports like Dublin, they have not operated as they should, to our advantage and many firms export through Northern ports because it is cheaper. The Minister should examine this aspect because it makes no sense for exporters from Wexford to haul their product through Dublin and Louth to Belfast and still export more cheaply. The setting up of the new boards should see a change in this area.

It is important that Ireland, on the periphery of Europe, should have ports that are up to standard. It will be a difficult task for the Minister to get the 12 boards up and running and involved in the day to day running of the ports. This is the first step. I agree with Deputy Smith that the Minister is, on the one hand, bringing in a Bill aimed at freeing up the ports and cutting through bureaucracy and red tape but, on the other, the Department of Finance seems to want to have a hand in everything that happens in any Department. There is nothing wrong with accountability. To be answerable to the Minister for the Marine is one thing but to be answerable to the Minister for Finance is another. New authorities should have powers and be allowed to operate freely if they are to be successful. These boards cannot be successful if the gurus in the Department of Finance have the final say in regard to everything they wish to do.

I come from a county which has been provided with substantial amounts of money for port development by different Governments. There is a large port development in Rosslare, which is one of the finest ports in Europe, thanks to moneys allocated by this and the last two Governments. The Minister of State Deputy Gilmore, visited Rosslare recently and announced an allocation of £10 million for ongoing development at Rosslare Harbour. As more than one million passengers a year come through Rosslare it is important to continue to develop it and, therefore, I welcome the recent allocation of funds. It is important also to ensure that tourists coming through Rosslare spend some time and money in the south eastern region. We have an ideal opportunity for developing a centre of excellence in Rosslare for job creation and the attraction of new industries and investment. I see that as the next phase of the development of Rosslare Harbour.

When the Minister was in Wexford he also announced an allocation of £3 million for New Ross harbour which is an important regional port used by 600 ships a year and with an annual throughput of 1.140 million tonnes. There is major importation of petroleum products in this area and, for a number of years, the harbour board in New Ross has been fighting for funds for the development of that harbour. The recent allocation by the Minister was welcome and will open up further opportunities for job creation in the south east. In recent years there has been much jealousy and guarding of what they have by the various ports. This Bill should encourage the opening up of the ports and encourage further competition and development.

The Department of the Environment will have a major role in the area of infrastructural development around the ports. In some areas there is very good road access to ports but in other areas it is not so good. For example, the road from Enniscorthy to New Ross is a disaster and was recently taken over by the National Roads Authority. I hope we do not have to wait until 1998-99 for development on that stretch of road as a major port development requires major road development. I ask the Minister for the Environment to ensure that that road is upgraded to a very high standard as soon as possible so that the development of the port is not stifled because of poor road access.

The Minister stated that the number of directors of each company shall be not more than 12 and that they will be appointed and may be removed from office by the Minister with the consent of the Minister for Finance. It should be sufficient for the Minister for the Marine to make such decisions. I see no reason for the involvement of the Department of Finance. I should also like to know who will be appointed to the boards. The Minister mentioned local authority members. Is it intended to include representatives of exporters. the fishing industry etc? It is important to appoint people who have an interest in the development of the ports and who will see to their long-term development because too often in the past people who were not suitable were appointed to boards. I welcome the appointment of worker directors. They make a valuable input and keep workers, political parties and the Government up to date on what is happening on boards.

The Bill states that the staff of companies whose employees exceed 50 in number shall elect two worker directors and the staff of companies whose employees are more than 30 but not more than 50 in number shall elect one worker director. The provisions governing the election of worker directors is set out in the Fifth Schedule. Where the staff of a company is fewer than 30 in number the Minister will, following consultation with recognised trade unions, appoint a person as a representative of the interests of the employees of the company. Why is the Minister not prepared to allow a company with staff of fewer than 30 to elect their own representative? I do not think the Minister should have the right, in consultation with the unions, to appoint a representative.

I welcome the appointment of three members by a prescribed local authority. New Ross and Arklow have urban councils. Will the county council or the urban council nominate the members? The county council is the premier body in any county but I am not sure if it should have the nominating rights to a board or authority in an urban area. Sometimes those elected to the boards are not from the urban area and are not au fait with what is happening there. In the case of the new structure in New Ross, the Minister should consider allowing the urban council to have a say in who represents it.

Is the Minister talking about elected members, county managers, county secretaries or finance officers? There should be a balance. Elected representatives have a major role to play regardless of their political persuasion. There are a number of elected representatives on the old harbour board in New Ross and I would not like to see them excluded. I am sure the old boards will be abolished but will the valuable experience built up by those people in developing the port be lost?

I read an article recently by Brian Dowling, political correspondent with the Irish Independent entitled: “£330 million Port Plan Sails into Stormy Waters”. He referred to the problems which may arise with pensions resulting from the new structures taking over the old boards. How will the pension rights of staff on the new authorities be protected? The figures given in the newspaper are very high. Will the Minister clarify the position?

It is important that we develop our ports to take account of the changes in shipping, the size of ships and our dependence on external trade. In 1980 there was a throughput of 19.4 million tonnes. That has increased to 28 million, an increase of 40 per cent. We must ask if it could have been further increased had we had proper structures a number of years ago. Much of the traffic which should be going through our ports now goes through ports in the North.

I welcome the Bill. I hope it will allow the 12 new commercial State companies to be viable and operate the ports. I look forward to teasing out the provisions of the Bill on Committee Stage.

I welcome the Bill. It was brought forward to the House on a number of occasions and returned for revision. I welcome the Minister for the Marine and the Minister of State who has taken a great interest in this area since he took office. He visited many of the ports for which he has responsibility. I know he has a great knowledge of port structures. I had the pleasure of showing him the ports at Arklow and Wicklow, both in my constituency. Those two viable harbours are in need of reconstruction.

The ports have operated under the Harbours Act, 1946 and some minor amendments were made to it over the years. It was a worthwhile Act which stood the test of time. It was introduced immediately after the Second World War when sailing ships were the norm in many ports. Many of its provisions dealt with sailing ships which had precedence over steam and power driven ships playing between harbours.

Parts III, IV and V are welcome and take account of the changes which have occurred in the type of vessels using the ports and also the modern communications systems operated in the ports. Those changes were not anticipated when the Act was passed more than 50 years ago. In that respect, this Bill is long overdue. In the past attempts were made to modernise the Harbours Act and it seems that this attempt will be successful.

Debate adjourned.