The Minister could have done it in July and I would have come to the Taoiseach's office and received a briefing at first hand. One of the primary objectives for this legislation is to protect the legal entity and commercial dynamic of our ports. I therefore welcome sections 3 and 9. Section 3 deals principally with the limits of a company's harbour and clarifies the law on the power of the Minister to change the limits in the light of the City View Press and Mulcreevy court rulings, to which the Minister referred. The section clearly specifies and provides absolute legal clarity on the geographical limits of the Dublin and Drogheda port companies. I note the comments of my Fine Gael colleague, who is a representative from Drogheda.
Section 9 amends section 3 of the 1996 Act and allows for the ports to have greater flexibility to borrow money. Given the vital role of ports, it is important that we allow the port companies sufficient commercial flexibility to operate as successfully and dynamically as possible. I therefore welcome these changes to enhance the borrowing powers of national ports, with reference to the figure of €200 million with the consent of the Minister and that 50% of the company or subsidiary assets can be treated as fixed assets. These financial changes are also necessary for the Drogheda-Bremore development but the integration of rail freight and critical transport issues such as the long-promised outer orbital ring road, about which we have constantly asked the Minister on Question Time, are not addressed anywhere in this legislation. It is clear that the Government must provide further policy guidelines, and perhaps even legislation, to enable the Drogheda-Bremore development to go ahead.
There are also huge residential districts in Balbriggan in north Dublin and surrounding areas. Little thought seems to have been given so far to the massive transport, environmental and other impacts of the development of Bremore port on these communities. My colleague referred to the communities in the Meath and south Louth area, where we must also be careful in protecting residential communities.
It is unquestionable that there will also be significant gains for landowners around Bremore Point as a result of planned construction at that location. There is no indication in this Bill of any mechanism to ensure community planning gains for Drogheda or Balbriggan and their environs. I strongly support the redevelopment of Drogheda but it is important that we protect public money and ensure that development is carried out in a sustainable and commercially viable and responsible way. In particular, it is important we act in this manner for the thousands of residents in Balbriggan, Drogheda and the surrounding district.
One critical aspect of the legislation relates to mergers and I have referred to a number of smaller mergers. Was any consideration given at this stage to any kind of linkage or strategic coming together of the ports in Dublin and Drogheda? Given that the economic hinterlands of the Drogheda and Dublin region already meet, in many respects, and there is a merging in activities, has the Minister given any consideration to the viewpoint sometimes expressed by people in both Dublin and Drogheda that some sort of linkage between these two ports could be a valuable development for the economy and the societies around the ports?
In the previous Dáil, the marine committee under the chairmanship of Deputy Noel O'Flynn, visited Buenos Aires. Although I did not accompany the committee representatives, they told me in their report to the committee that the Buenos Aires city port continued to develop but a further port for heavy goods had also developed further down the coast. There seemed to be a linkage between the new port and the older city port. Has the Department given any consideration to kinds of strategic linkages between Drogheda-Bremore and Dublin?
Dublin Port is the country's premier port and one of the key economic engines of the greater Dublin region, east Leinster counties and the entire country. In 2007, trade went over 13 million tonnes for the first time and 42% of the 90% of GDP which we export goes through Dublin Port. Dublin Port is the second-largest industrial estate in Ireland, with 4,000 workers, and it is a very important driver of economic development for this city and region.
There has been intense speculation over the past number of years about the future of Dublin Port. Former Senator Tom Morrissey of the thankfully now extinct Progressive Democrats visualised his now discredited dream of Dublin Port being turned into "a Manhattan on the River Liffey". There is clearly an essential need for reform of the corporate governance in our greatest port, given the litany of errors and scandals that have bedevilled the Dublin Port Company in recent years, particularly relating to sale of lands in the vital land bank of almost 600 acres.
For example, there was the 2005 sale of 27 acres at Dublin Port near East Wall Road and the Point Depot to the Anna Livia consortium, which was sanctioned by the Minister without a tendering process, despite the value of the land at this time being put at a staggering€270 million. At one stage there was a ludicrous suggestion that the new national conference centre would be built on stilts to allow ships and boats to carry on their activities underneathit.
In the 2005 Irish Glass Bottle Company debacle, South Wharf plc tried to buy lands at Dublin Port and State lands for a fraction of their true value due to a loophole in the Landlord and Tenant (Ground Rents) Act 1978, which Dublin Port and successive governments failed to address. This loophole allowed tenants to create a sub-lease, whose holders could then acquire the right to buy the fee simple of the property for a multiple of only 15 times its annual rent. This meant that South Wharf would have been able to buy that land for €20 million, just 5% of its then estimated €300 million value.
The Minister remembers that we had to rush through in a couple of hours the emergency Landlord and Tenant Act on 19 May 2005. As a result of the incompetence of the Minister and the then Minister of State, Deputy Gallagher, all Irish ports were not included in the exclusions contained in the emergency legislation. The port and harbour lands were finally included in the Maritime Safety Bill, which was passed late on the night of 21 June 2005.
Given the importance of Dublin Port to the local region and national economy, Dublin's long-term future still hangs in the balance, somewhat unfairly. Over the past two years I have forwarded a number of submissions on behalf of the Labour Party on Dublin Port to different bodies, including the Department of Transport, An Bord Pleanála and the Dublin Bay task force. One of the worrying aspects of all these consultations and reviews is the ongoing tug-of-war between the Green Party with their leader and Minister, Deputy John Gormley, on one side and the Minister for Transport, Deputy Noel Dempsey, on the other over the future of Dublin Port and Dublin Bay. This ongoing tug-of-war is disastrous for the port in all its uses, both commercial and recreational.
At the moment, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Noel Dempsey, is carrying out one consultation process and the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy John Gormley, is carrying out another. The Minister made special arrangements for a particular local election candidate in the Clontarf ward who was the chairperson of one of those consultation bodies but, unfortunately, even she got sick of the Green Party's behaviour in government and is now running as an Independent. The Minister got no benefit for all his efforts on her behalf.
Who speaks for the Government on this matter and who will make the final decision on the future of Dublin Bay and Dublin Port? On behalf of the Labour Party and local colleagues, including Councillors Anne Carter and Aodhán Ó Ríordáin and local election candidate Brian McDowell of Raheny, I sent a strong objection to An Bord Pleanála in October 2008 on the Dublin Port Company's plan to infill 52 acres of Dublin Bay, given the serious environmental, traffic and hydrology deficiencies in the proposal, the lack of consultation with the local community, and the bypassing of normal democratic planning procedures through the use of the Strategic Infrastructure Act. There is also the fact that Dublin Port already has so much valuable land at its disposal.
In submissions to the Dublin Bay task force and the Department of Transport's sustainable Dublin Bay development consultation process, I outlined the Labour Party's vision for Dublin Bay and Dublin Port, which fully supports the core function of Dublin Port as a mercantile, commercial and economic hub of this country, as well as ensuring the maximum environmental protection for all areas of Dublin Bay and its hinterland so as to ensure the sustainable and long-term development of this unique asset. The Minister has responsibility, as does the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, to sort out the medium and long-term vision for the development of Dublin Port and end the confusion which this Bill will in no way assist today.
The Port of Cork has also made major advances in the past decade and remains one of only two Irish ports which can facilitate all five shipping methods, including lift on-lift off, roll on-roll off, liquid bulk, dry bulk and break bulk. We heard recently a first-hand report from the board of the Port of Cork at the Oireachtas transport committee about its plans and its difficulties with developing the Ringaskiddy facilities. It is clear that the Port of Cork also needs a sustainable future development plan while at the same time preserving the wonderful natural assets of Cork Harbour.
There are many similarities between Cork and Dublin and the economic importance of both — including the 2,000 jobs in Cork — are equally significant. As with Dublin Port, the Minister has again showed no strategic vision or leadership for the long-term sustainable development of one of our premier national ports.
Some of the other great ports, including Shannon Foynes, also face major challenges. For example, there has been a litany of alleged criminal shenanigans at Shannon Foynes Port over a number of years and the Minister should urgently investigate and report on these.
A shocking article published in The Sunday Business Post on 29 March last details how an internal review carried out by Deloitte found numerous breaches of the legislation governing the sale of State lands and tendering services on the part of the Shannon Foynes Port Company. However, further action has not been taken. The Minister appears to believe it was sufficient to replace the chairperson and directors of the company without carrying out a more thorough investigation of the past performance of the Shannon Foynes Port Company. I understand the Garda Bureau of Fraud Investigation is examining further allegations in respect of the Shannon Foynes Port Company. In response to a citizen’s request, I have already asked Mr. Paul Appleby of the Office of Corporate Enforcement, the Committee of Public Accounts and the Joint Committee on Transport to investigate the current and previous allegations.
The legislation does not refer to the port of Rosslare. The 2005 policy review strongly suggested that the legislation which governs the status of Rosslare — which comes under the aegis of Iarnród Éireann — be modernised. In light of the importance of Rosslare to our national transport infrastructure and to commercial and passenger traffic, why is the recommendation relating to it in the 2005 policy review not included in the legislation. Will the Minister be bringing forward specific legislation in respect of Rosslare?
There have also been significant developments at the ports of Waterford and Galway. A number of months ago, I was privileged to meet the members of the Galway harbour board in the company Deputy Higgins, and other colleagues from the Galway West constituency. Deputy Higgins wishes to make a number of comments on the discussions which took place at that meeting.
Reports in the media have referred to possible future links between the ports of Waterford and New Ross. Will the Minister indicate his position in respect of such reports?
I welcome section 5, which establishes legislative basis for harbours to invest outside their current limits, both inside and outside the State. Dublin Port has, for example, already been very successfully involved in ventures with other ports outside the State. I refer, in particular, to ports in Indonesia in this regard. Given the outstanding track record of other commercial and semi-State companies such as ESB International, ESBI, in overseas ventures, investment of this nature by the national ports — as publicly owned semi-State bodies — should be encouraged. However, it is vital that a clear statutory basis be established in this regard and that is what is being done in the Bill.
Sections 6 and 7 make amendments to the method through which ports can sell, lease and acquire land and propose to transfer certain ministerial functions in this regard to An Bord Pleanála. I have already referred to some of the serious problems that have arisen in this regard in the past. What is proposed is a political measure aimed at passing the buck away from the Minister and using An Bord Pleanála as a mudguard to avoid his being damaged by any difficult political fallout which might occur. Were these sections partly inspired by the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, who has shamefully discarded a long series of commitments to his constituents in Dublin South East in respect of the proposed incinerator and who does want to be obliged to take any decisions that may cause him any further local difficulties?
As already stated, major changes are proposed in respect of the governance and board structure of our ports. I welcome the provision in section 10 which stipulates that each port must provide a statement to the Minister on an annual basis. However, I have grave difficulties with sections 8 and 11, which provide for the deletion of the automatic nomination of local authority directors and will, regardless of the size of the port, confine the number of worker directors to one. There has rightly been major opposition from Labour and other councillors throughout the country in respect of this matter. I was delighted to meet representatives of the General Council of County Councils to discuss this matter. The basic point they made is that the track of councillors on port boards is impressive. Councillors have served on such boards with great distinction for many years. They argue that any deficiencies which may have arisen were not caused by the presence of democratically elected local representatives.
While suggesting a reduction in the number of local authority members on the boards of ports, the Government's 2005 policy statement did not propose such a draconian abolition of all statutory representation on the part of county councillors. This appears to be another milestone in the political career of the Minister, Deputy Dempsey, who has again taken an extreme approach in respect of a suggestion put forward. We will be obliged to pay back the €60 million relating to the electronic voting machines he commissioned over a long period. The latter episode represents perhaps the high point of his disastrous performance in ministerial office.
The Minister has claimed that he will appoint a local councillor to the board. Why abolish the statutory provision which connects the structures of governance and local democracy? As already stated, ports have a unique relationship with their hinterlands and it would seem reasonable to ensure that people would be represented on their local port boards. The Minister may argue that a similar mechanism should be used in respect of airports and other similar semi-State enterprises. I agree that this should be the case. There could be local representation on airports that have a profound impact on local areas. What could be better than including locally elected representatives — the next generation of whom are due to be elected in four weeks' time — on the boards of such enterprises?
It is clear this measure will result in an increase in the number of ministerial protégés and stooges appointed to the boards of ports. When contributing to the Second Stage debate on the Bill in the Seanad, the former Minister of State, Deputy Noel Ahern, stated:
. . . a performance audit of the companies in 2001-02, undertaken by Jonathan Packer, recommended that the statutory provision for local authority directors be abolished. The 2003 high-level review of the State commercial ports concurred with this recommendation and concluded that the practise of appointing port users, local councillors and those without relevant experience should cease.
However, it appears that one needs few maritime qualifications to be appointed to the board of a port by the Minister. The only qualification one needs to be appointed to the board of the Shannon Foynes Port Company is membership of the local Fianna Fáil cumann. Our ports are too important to be used for political patronage and to provide jobs for friends and supporters of Fianna Fáil. Under section 3 and the new harbour limits, Dublin Port will now clearly come within the remit of three local authorities, namely, Fingal County Council Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council and Dublin City Council.
The measures in section 11 to slash the number of worker directors on port boards from two to one is one of the most reprehensible and retrograde elements of this legislation. The suspicion remains that the decimation of the representation of councillors and worker directors on the boards of ports is being done to facilitate an easier path for the Government's ultimate objective, namely, the privatisation of our ports. As a number of their representatives strongly argued last year, worker directors have made an overwhelmingly positive contribution to the development of the commercial State-owned ports since the introduction of the Harbours Act 1996. Worker directors tend to be people who have a deep and profound knowledge of the ports at which they work and who are overwhelmingly committed to maximising the development and potential thereof. Worker directors also have a sound track record in the context of supporting the commercial and overseas roles of our ports. The timing of this measure is very disturbing, particularly in view of the fact that many ports, including Dublin, Cork, Drogheda-Bremore and Greenore, are all in the midst of major expansion.
Worker directors are also obliged to take part in the democratic process and are elected by their colleagues. I do not, therefore, understand the logic of reducing the number of worker directors on the large port boards.
I have always been a strong supporter of business models under which workers have a strong role. I refer here to companies that are run by their own workers. One example in this regard is the John Lewis Partnership, which has been enormously successful and which has 70,000 employees. I do not understand why the Minister is proceeding with the proposal to reduce worker director representation.
I generally agree with the provision in section 11 relating to the removal of port users as a result of possible conflicts of interest. However, why does the Bill allow chief executives and managers to remain on port boards? The stipulation that there must be a maximum of eight directors on the board of a port is surprising. One could extend the logic of this provision to the Government itself and ask why it is necessary to have 15 Ministers or 15 Ministers of State. If the Minister really wishes to reduce the number of board members, he should reduce the number of those he is empowered to appoint. I intend to introduce a series of amendments in respect of this matter. The Minister should move urgently and reconsider that, both in terms of councillors and workers.
It is bizarre that there has been so many errors regarding the sale of lands at Dublin Port and the allegations about Shannon Foynes when the 2005 ports policy estimates an astonishing capacity shortfall of 12.2 million tonnes by 2014 across all the ports. According to the ESRI we are in an economic depression. We have left the recession and entered a depression, with a 10% fall in GDP, but there will be recovery, as always happens in an economic cycle, and I hope that will take place under a new Government.
We need to re-examine capacity issues, which are not mentioned at all. One must ask the reason for the attempted sell-off of lands in Dublin and Shannon when we knew there were capacity problems. In addition to the necessity to examine the capacity issues, there are other matters in the 2005 report which are ignored in the Bill, for example, the question of competition between and within the ports. The Minister, in his reply, might report on the operation of the EU directive on market access to port services and whether any further studies have been commissioned on competition issues, as recommended by the 2005 ports policy.
There was a critical discussion about port regulation in the 2005 document but no fundamental answer was given on that. I again ask the Minister whether he intends to appoint a port regulator, based either inside or outside the Department, given the appalling track record of this Government in regulating other sectors including finance, planning, construction and housing. The Minister must urgently provide a full account on port regulation and outline the reason he has ignored all of those important issues that arose in his own report in 2005.
I will refer briefly to some other questionable aspects of the Bill, in particular sections 12 to 16. The Minister is aware that many maritime pilots are concerned that the amendments to the pilot exemption certificates being proposed in section 15 amount to the outsourcing of pilotage services and would facilitate inexperienced and novice officers taking a key role in navigating vessels in and out of Irish ports. I am aware the Minister has had some discussions with the pilots but it is an issue on which he might report to us.
The Irish Maritime Development Office is an important planning body in the maritime area. Is the Minister planning any legislation in that regard? I ask him to give the House an update on the Irish shipping register.
In general terms I welcome some aspects of the Bill but I intend bringing forward a number of critical amendments, particularly on the representation of employees and local councillors. I ask the Minister to re-examine that area. I hope the Bill will not be used as a vehicle to privatise critical port assets.