I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
The Fisheries (Amendment) Bill 2002, which was amended and passed by the Seanad, is designed to extend and strengthen sea fisheries legislation in a number of important respects. The fishing industry has welcomed it. Members of this House will note that, in order to maintain the momentum of reform and as a consequence of a Seanad amendment to section 1 of the Bill, the Bill, if passed, will be operative immediately on its signature by the President and will not require a ministerial commencement order or orders.
The primary purpose of the Bill is to provide for the establishment of an independent statutory appeals process for the licensing of sea fishing boats, to give effect to a commitment in the programme for Government. Part 2 and Schedule 1 contain detailed provisions in this matter. For ease of reference, a consolidated text of the current sea fishing boat licensing legislation, section 222B of the Fisheries (Consolidation) Act 1959, is attached as an appendix to the detailed explanatory and financial memorandum which was published with the Bill.
The Bill also enables Ireland to give effect to the 1995 United Nations agreement concerning the conservation and management of straddling and highly migratory fish stocks. Such stocks, which are generally in the high seas and are vulnerable to over-fishing, require concerted international efforts to protect them properly. Part 3 of the Bill contains the detailed implementation provisions required. Schedule 2 to the Bill sets out the text of the agreement and Schedule 3 lists the highly migratory fish species requiring protection. At the end of this Second Stage debate, I will seek formal Dáil approval, pursuant to Article 29.5.2 of Bunreacht na hÉireann, for the terms of the agreement.
The opportunity is being taken to strengthen existing sea fisheries enforcement legislation, notably by including among sea fisheries protection officers additional Naval Service ranks, from sergeant and petty officer down to and including corporal and leading rating, and Air Corps ranks down to and including the rank of corporal. This is being done in the interests of greater efficiency and effectiveness of enforcement effort – section 21(1) – and increasing out of date penalties for certain serious offences – sections 24 and 25. Other penalties will be comprehensively reviewed when consideration is given to updating and consolidating the sea fisheries legislation I mentioned earlier.
As I said at the outset, the programme for Government contains a commitment to establish an independent appeals process for the licensing of sea fishing boats. An interim non-statutory appeals process was established with effect from 25 November 2002 by the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources. These arrangements will be superseded in due course by the comprehensive statutory appeals process provided for in this Bill. The non-statutory appeals arrangements allow appeals made by licence applicants against proposed licensing decisions notified on or after 25 November 2002 to be considered by an independent lawyer – Mr. Niall Beirne, BL, of the Law Library – nominated by the Attorney General. Details of how to make an appeal are notified to licence applicants with each proposed decision. If a licence applicant confirms in writing that he, she or it does not wish to appeal, or if no appeal is made within a month of notification, the proposed decision automatically becomes final. If an appeal is made within a month of notification, the licensing authority will have regard to the outcome of the appeals process when making a final decision on the application, in accordance with the law as it stands. No such appeals have been made to date.
Under Part 2 of the Bill, applicants for sea fishing boat licences, licensees and third parties will be entitled to appeal licensing decisions. The final decision on such licensing will be made by the independent appeals officer, who will be a suitably qualified and experienced lawyer with a minimum of five years' practice. Determination of the appeal will be subject to the determination being in conformity with the law, including the legal obligations of the State arising under EU or other international instruments; such policy directives in relation to sea fishing boat licensing as the Minister may give in writing from time to time – section 3(4) specifically provides that the Minister cannot intervene in any particular appeals case; and judicial review by the High Court if an application is made thereto, in accordance with section 14 of Bill, within three months of the determination on the appeal in question by the appeals officer.
The following matters relating to sea fishing boat licences will be available to the public electronically, via an appropriate website, as part of the transparent independent statutory appeals process provided for in Part 2 of the Bill: applications made to the licensing authority for sea fishing boat licences – section 4 (6)(a) of the Bill; decisions on those applications by the licensing authority – section 4 (6)(b); appeals made against those decisions to the statutory appeals officer, when appointed – section 6(1); and decisions by the statutory appeals officer on the appeals and an explanation of the decisions – section 11(6). Details of all licence applications received on or after 1 January 2003 are published on my Department's website, www.dcmnr.ie, to give momentum to the licensing reform and to accord with section 4(6) of the Bill, which was added by the Seanad. I should add that the programme for Government promises a fundamental review of sea fishing boat licensing policy, as the last such review was undertaken more than ten years ago. The review has been under way for some months.
The review group's necessarily wide-ranging remit includes a review of the current licensing law, as well as a variety of other issues of concern to the sea fishing industry. The review group, comprising experts from the Department, the Office of the Attorney General, Bord Iascaigh Mhara, the Marine Institute and the sea fishing industry, aims to report to the Minister by 30 June next. A key factor in the group's deliberations and the basis of its main report is the awaited clarification of last year's decisions on the Common Fisheries Policy, notably regarding the permitted overall size, composition and capacity of the Irish sea fishing fleet.
The review group has made two interim conservation related recommendations to the Minister, who has accepted them. Polyvalent boats not precluded by their licences from fishing for herring and or mackerel, but which did not fish for the species in 2002 or 2003, will not break the active pelagic requirement of fishing for either of the species for 16 weeks in each of four successive years. Polyvalent boat owners will also have the option to have 2002 and 2003 included for the purposes of their active pelagic track records, subject to having fished for at least a minimum period of eight weeks in each of those years.
The review group may decide to report early on issues which it may consider to require an urgent decision from the Minister. The group will consider outline proposals, recently published by the Minister and circulated to the fishing industry, for the regularisation of small unlicensed and unregistered inshore fishing boats. As the Minister advised the House on 5 February in answer to Parliamentary Question No. 226 of that date, the outcome of the consultative process will be carefully considered by the Minister, before he finalises the scheme for introduction as soon as possible.
I wish to return to the UN agreement set out in Schedule 2 to the Bill. The modalities for detailed implementation of the agreement are a matter for the party states and other parties to the agreement to decide from time to time, in light of conservation and management imperatives and the best use of available surveillance and enforcement resources. Concerted international action in implementing the agreement should serve as a strong deterrent to over-fishing and so help minimise enforcement costs for Ireland. The EU is anxious to secure complete ratification of the agreement by the EU and all 15 member statesen bloc as early as possible, so as to signal its commitment to sustainable fishing on the high seas and elsewhere, and has requested Ireland to make the necessary arrangements to progress the legislation and other measures required to enable it to ratify the agreement.
Enactment of this Bill is a prerequisite to enabling Ireland to ratify the agreement and become a party state thereto. Ireland is now the only EU member state not yet ready to ratify the agreement and is under considerable pressure to do so. The assistance of this House in the matter is appreciated. Ireland's obligations under the agreement are already factored into the multi-agency enforcement programme planned for 2003, which, in any event, will involve increased activity by sea fisheries protection officers of all of the agencies concerned.
I will propose amendments to the Bill on Committee Stage so as to provide enabling power for the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources to prescribe by regulations fees for sea-fishing licence applications and licences. The types of sea-fishing licence applications and licences to be subjected to fees have yet to be decided, as have the level of fees to be charged.
No fees are chargeable under the current legislation, namely, the Fisheries Acts 1959 to 2001, in respect of any sea fishing licence application or licence. That somewhat unique position is not tenable in view of the fact that licensing costs are at least €500,000 per annum and growing, and are met in full by the Exchequer. The main categories of such licences are those for sea fishing boats and for limited fishing for certain specially protected fish species. The required motion of instruction to the Select Committee on Communications, Marine and Natural Resources and the required financial resolution will be moved for Dáil approval before Committee Stage of the Bill.