Priority Questions. - Marine Accidents.

Simon Coveney

Question:

54 Mr. Coveney asked the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources the measures he has taken to improve water safety since coming to office; and his plans in the marine safety area for the coming months. [11151/03]

My Department has an ongoing safety programme involving an appropriate combination of statutory regulation, enforcement and safety awareness promotion with the aim of achieving the highest level of safety at sea and on inland waters. In August last I initiated a review of safety measures on small watercraft. This review is focusing on the requirement to carry and wear lifejackets, licensing requirements, enforcement and increased safety awareness. I brought forward the date for implementation of new safety regulations applicable to passenger boats from June to January 2003. A number of seminars were organised around the country to promote the new regulations.

My Department issued a consultation paper last November seeking views on the adequacy of existing legislation regarding the carrying and wearing of lifejackets. More than 100 lengthy submissions have been received and these are currently being assessed.

As regards Ireland's port State control obligations under Directive 95/21/EC, following a redeployment of resources in the latter half of 2002 when we took on ten extra marine surveyors, my Department achieved an improved inspection performance from 21% in 2001 to 30% in 2002. This is above the 25% inspection ratio requirement under the directive and improves the safety standards of ships using our ports. A further ten vessel surveyors were also recruited recently to ensure that we continue to meet our port State control obligations.

The Maritime Safety Directorate's business plan for 2003 includes an ambitious legislative programme involving new regulations governing domestic passenger ships, fishing vessels, port State control regime and measures to monitor the activities of classification societies that conduct survey inspections on behalf of flag states. The Deputy can be assured that the safety on our waters is a priority for me and my Department in the coming months.

I welcome the final statement by the Minister and the fact that we have improved significantly our inspection figures of ships coming into Irish ports. It was not before time or before we were embarrassed into doing so by the EU. I am sure the Minister is aware that an average of 85 people are lost each year as a result of accidental drowning. Some 42% of these people drown at sea and approximately 58% on inland waterways.

I am sure he will agree that the key to improving these tragic figures is to educate people as to the dangers of the sea and inland waterways. In that regard, will the Minister confirm that aquatics is now to be part of the physical education curriculum in all primary schools? This has been semi-announced and, even though the Minister does not have direct responsibility for education, he would be aware of the proposal if it were the case. It would be helpful if he could confirm the proposal and confirm that the Department of Education and Science will pay for the training as opposed to parents of children in primary school.

In regard to enforcement, will the Minister tell the House how many people have been prosecuted for not carrying lifejackets on vessels since the legislation was introduced and how many have been arrested for the abuse of alcohol or drugs while in charge of a mechanically propelled vessel?

Given the broad range of the question, I do not have the information on the last two questions. Perhaps the Deputy will put down a parliamentary question and we will get him the information.

In regard to the issue of safety, I thank the Deputy for what he said. This has been a priority for me since coming into office. On the issue of aquatics as a subject to be included in the primary school curriculum, I am aware that some discussions have taken place. I am not sure because this area is not my responsibility. It is an area to which I have given much thought. As the Deputy will be aware from the submissions in regard to compulsory wearing or availability of lifejackets, it is not that simple. Already, some of the submissions from people in this sector point out that one cannot wear a lifejacket on all occasions.

There are issues that need to be addressed. We cannot be overly prescriptive and I agree completely with the Deputy that education is the ultimate way to encourage people to wear lifejackets. Unfortunately, despite wide-ranging and expensive publicity campaigns by various agencies the figures the Deputy related still exist. While we must continue to increase the level of education, there must be an element of the carrot as well as the stick. We should tighten up the regulations and the enforcement of them.

I have received feedback regarding the lifejacket questionnaire that says it was issued at an unsuitable time of the year. People were only given three weeks to respond and the document remains on the desks of a significant number of people that did not have an opportunity to respond to it before the end of December last. If it is the case that conclusions have not been reached on recommendations for wearing lifejackets, I suggest that people be given a second opportunity to make submissions.

Does the Minister think it is acceptable that the Galway based Irish Water Safety Council relies so heavily on fund-raising to spread its message to schools and community groups etc.? Will the Minister consider looking at the funding available to this agency? While the agency does excellent work, it is grossly underfunded. If it is true to say the Minister has made the improvement of water safety a priority and seeks to change the mind-set of people towards it, surely the proper financing of the water safety council is the place to start.

We issued the consultation paper in November with a deadline for replies of 31 December. One might say it was issued at the wrong time of the year, yet if we were to issue the consultation paper in the summer the people involved in the leisure sector may well be on their boats. We could have a long and wide-ranging consultation process. I want fairly tight deadlines on any of the consultation processes that I have introduced in order to take action.

Are we close to recommendations?

With the summer season almost upon us, I do not think I could concede to a further consultation process as I want to take action in the near future.