I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I pin my colours to the mast to state that maritime safety will remain at the top of my political agenda and that of the Government. I signal my commitment to greater safety awareness by all vessel operators and other users and greater and more widespread public enjoyment of the Irish waters which are nature's gift. In piloting the Bill through the House, I wish it to be clear that while it is overdue, the legislation is only one of a wide range of measures being developed on an ongoing basis to enhance maritime safety.
The Bill, passed by the Seanad on 4 May, contains a considerable package of measures designed to enhance maritime safety. It provides clear powers for local authorities to make by-laws to regulate and control the use of jet-skis and other fast, powered recreational craft. Powers to make by-laws are also provided for Waterways Ireland, harbour companies, harbour authorities, Iarnród Éireann and, in respect of the five fishery harbour centres, for the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources or me through formally delegated authority.
The Bill's provisions outlaw and penalise a wide range of reckless behaviour on or with vessels generally. The legislation provides a statutory basis for the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, or me through formally delegated powers, to prepare and promulgate, under Part 3, codes of practice to ensure the proper operation of vessels generally and, under Parts 4 and 5, to update fines in related Acts. An updated, detailed explanatory and financial memorandum was published with the Bill as passed by the Seanad for the convenience of Members of the Dáil.
Early enactment of the Bill is most desirable as the holiday season gets under way, to strengthen the law and encourage greater safety awareness in the use not only of the seas around the coast, but of rivers, lakes, canals and other inland waters of the State. In sending a clear signal on the improper use of jet-skis and speed boats on seas and inland waters, the Bill will benefit tourism and leisure businesses, safeguard human life and prevent damage to our natural and archaeological heritage. The original primary impetus for the Bill was the need to fill the gap in the law to prevent the improper use of jet-skis and other fast, powered recreational craft in public amenity and heritage areas.
The power of local authorities to make by-laws under the local government Acts does not extend to waters or lands not under their control or management. Part 2 provides local authorities with the necessary by-law and enforcement powers to regulate and control powered recreational craft in coastal and inland waters not under the control or management of the other statutory authorities set out. The authorities in question are Waterways Ireland, harbour companies, harbour authorities, Iarnród Éireann and the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources. The Bill provides matching powers to these authorities to make by-laws in respect of waters under their control or management to meet any need which arises.
Fines of up to €2,000 on summary conviction for offences under by-laws are set out in the Bill, as are fixed-payment notices, or on-the-spot-fines, for minor offences, where appropriate. Provision is also made for the seizure, detention and forfeiture of craft involved in serious offences and the disqualification of serious offenders from operating the craft in question in the interest of public safety and heritage protection.
Part 5 — originally Part 3 — updates penalty provisions in a number of related Acts, dating back to 1946, and inserts in each of them provisions for fixed payment notices — on-the-spot fines — for other offences of a minor nature, where appropriate, for consistency with the penalty provisions in Part 2. The opportunity was taken also to make some additional updating found to be necessary to remove doubt in the law and ease its administration.
Parts 3 and 4 were inserted in the Bill by Seanad Éireann on my recommendation. They are designed to fill gaps in maritime safety law governing vessels generally and to update and codify existing provisions dating back as far as the Merchant Shipping Act 1894. Part 3 outlaws and provides suitable penalties for a comprehensive range of reckless behaviour on or with vessels generally and provides for codes of practice to be prepared and promulgated by the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Noel Dempsey, or me to encourage best safety and environmental practices in the use of vessels generally.
Part 4 updates ministerial regulation-making provisions dating from 1992 and amended in 2000 in regard to passenger boats, fishing vessels and pleasure craft. Arising from a further detailed review of the Bill and earlier legislation by the Department with the Parliamentary Counsel to the Government and colleagues in the Office of the Attorney General, which time has allowed since the Bill was passed by Seanad Éireann, I will propose further amendments to the Bill on Committee Stage. I will table these with detailed explanatory notes as soon as Second Stage is agreed.
The amendments will further improve the accessibility and coherence of the law, in accordance with the Government's 2004 White Paper, Regulating Better, by incorporating in the Bill updated provisions of earlier Merchant Shipping Acts going back to 1981, as well as updating penalties in additional Merchant Shipping Acts, going back to 1979, all designed to enhance maritime safety. In particular, the amendments will include provisions deleted from the Sea Pollution (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2003 for updating penalties and other provisions of the Merchant Shipping Act 1992. There will also be drafting amendments proposed to clarify the text and ensure compatibility with other relevant legislation, and to repeal two Acts — one from 1934 and one from 1937 — which have long ceased to be of any use but still clog-up the Statute Book.
I wish to deal with a number of other maritime safety measures which are yielding fruit. The wearing of life-jackets is an essential element in staying safe on the water. Life-jackets save lives. The Merchant Shipping (Pleasure Craft) (Lifejackets and Operation) (Safety) Regulations 2004 make it compulsory for all children up to the age of 16 years to wear a life-jacket while on board a pleasure craft. The Irish Coastguard and the maritime safety directorate of the Department and the Garda are intensifying enforcement action in that regard as an increasing number of people take to the water. I take this opportunity to appeal again to the public generally and parents, in particular, to take responsibility for safety by wearing life-jackets and encouraging others to do so, and by taking other sensible precautions while on the water at any time. The Department will be intensifying its targeted publicity campaign for water safety in the coming weeks. It will undertake a radio campaign over the next bank holiday weekends in the summer promoting safety measures for leisure craft users.
In addition, the Irish Coastguard will undertake an at-sea advisory programme in selected areas where water-based leisure activities are significant. Under this programme, introduced for the first time last summer, Irish Coastguard coastal units will undertake water-based patrols to monitor and advise leisure craft users on the requirements for wearing life-jackets and other safety issues. Throughout 2005, the Irish Coastguard will also attend various events around the coast providing advice and marine safety demonstrations for the public.
I attended a safety demonstration at Rosses Point on Sunday last. I was impressed by it, as were the many hundreds of people who turned up. They could see at first hand the various professional agencies at work in addition to the many volunteers who contribute to safety at sea. I thank and congratulate all of them. These demonstrations are held yearly at various locations around the country and are extremely important. They highlight the importance of wearing the necessary life-jackets, carrying the marine telephones and the necessity to keep in touch. I also draw the attention of the House and of the public generally to the water safety website —www.safetyonthewater.ie— which gives important information on safety for various types of watersports.
Another key initiative in the area of safety of pleasure craft is the development of a code of practice for recreational craft. The code will set out current legislative requirements governing recreational craft as well as providing detailed guidance and information on best practice for the safe operation of such craft. The code was the subject of a public consultation process in 2004 and again recently with interested organisations. The code is being finalised and I intend to launch it over the summer.
A proposal to establish a small vessel register for small commercial and recreational craft of less than 15 net tonnes registered weight has also been the subject of public consultation. The comments arising from that process are being evaluated.
The marine surveyors of the maritime safety directorate of the Department inspect vessels, in accordance with the flag state and port state control regimes, to ensure that they comply with the safety standards laid down. The surveyors inspect Irish registered vessels at least annually. The marine surveyors also conduct safety inspections on passenger ships and passenger boats. These inspections, including unannounced checks, are undertaken throughout the State in regard to vessels at sea and on inland waters to determine whether there is compliance with licensing requirements, particularly those relating to crewing qualifications and numbers, maximum number of passengers allowed, safety procedures and the continued availability on board of the required proper safety equipment in working order.
By specific decision of this House in 2003, sea-fishing boat licensing is, since the enactment of the Fisheries (Amendment) Act 2003 on 1 July 2003, conditional on every boat concerned being surveyed and found to be both safe and seaworthy. I will table amendments on Committee Stage to replace this general requirement with more specific safety requirements to be met by sea-fishing boats of different classes before sea-fishing boat licences are issued.
In the case of vessels greater than 24 m in length, comprehensive regulations are already in place and such vessels must pass a survey to ascertain compliance with these regulations before a sea-fishing boat licence is issued. It is my intention shortly to introduce new safety regulations applicable to sea-fishing vessels of between 15 m and 24 m in length. It will be necessary to give time to owners of these boats to have their boats surveyed. In the meantime the sea-fishing boat licences for these vessels will be temporarily renewed. The amendments which I will propose on Committee Stage will allow for this. In regard to fishing vessels of under 15 m in length, a code of practice on the safety of these vessels was introduced last year and new sea-fishing boat licences for vessels in this category are issued only when a declaration of compliance with the code of practice, following a survey of the vessel, is provided to the licensing authority.
Existing licensed fishing vessels have been notified that their boats must comply with the code of practice in order for their fishing boat licences to be renewed beyond 30 June this year. Given the logistics involved I consider it reasonable to allow some additional time for licensees to complete the requirements and the amendments which I will introduce on Committee Stage will enable me to do this. The revised timescales for compliance with the code of practice will be set out in an amendment to the code which maritime safety directorate will issue shortly. In the meantime, the licences of fishing vessels in this category will be temporarily renewed. I am satisfied the amendments I will introduce will provide for a more focused and clearer safety regime for sea-fishing boats.
The Department is also taking the steps necessary to develop a national hydrographic service to meet Ireland's international obligations for navigational charts in respect of Irish waters. Ireland has applied for membership of the International Hydrographic Organisation based in Monaco and expects to become a member later this year, following approval by Dáil Éireann of the terms of the relevant convention, pursuant to Article 29.5.2° of Bunreacht na hÉireann. Membership of the International Hydrographic Organisation will provide access to valuable expertise needed to inform an optimal national strategy to provide relevant, reliable and standardised information for seas around the coast and important inland waters including the Shannon navigation system. Following two rounds of a consultation process, work is well advanced on new regulations to enhance safety standards on certain domestic passenger ships. The proposed regulations will cover such areas as watertight subdivision, provision of life-saving appliances, provision of fire-fighting equipment, emergency lighting, carriage of radio equipment and the weighing of goods vehicles.
Another initiative which is well advanced and aimed at improving safety operations of passenger boats and domestic passenger ships involves the development of regulations governing competency requirements for skippers and crews of such vessels. The competency of those in charge of vessels is just as important as ensuring the vessels they operate meet the necessary safety standards.
The Bill contains an important suite of measures to enhance public safety and enjoyment in Irish waters and to protect important heritage against damage and interference. I hope the Bill will have the desired effect of ensuring proper and safe behaviour on and with vessels generally in Irish waters and in stamping out bad behaviour by certain users of fast-powered watercraft, which is posing an unacceptable risk to the public, property and wildlife. I look forward to hearing the views of Members and passing the Bill into law at the earliest opportunity.