Pre-Legislative Scrutiny of the Sea-Fisheries (Amendment) Bill, 2021: Discussion (Resumed)

Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn is substituting for Deputy Matt Carthy and Deputy Thomas Pringle is substituting for Deputy Michael Fitzmaurice. For the purposes of speaking slots, Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan is substituting for Senator Paul Daly and Deputy Verona Murphy is substituting for Senator Victor Boyhan.

I remind members that in the context of Covid-19 restrictions, only the Chairman and staff are present in the committee room. All members must join remotely from elsewhere within the parliamentary precincts. The secretariat can issue invitations during the meeting on MS Teams. Members may not participate in the meeting from outside the parliamentary precincts. I ask members to mute their microphones when are not making a contribution. I ask them to use the raise hand function to indicate their wish to make a contribution. Please note that messages sent to meeting chat are visible to all participants. Speaking slots will be prioritised for members of the committee.

The agenda today is the pre-legislative scrutiny of the sea-fisheries (amendment) Bill 2021. It is a continuation of the pre-legislative scrutiny of the sea-fisheries (amendment) Bill 2021, with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Charlie McConalogue. The committee previously engaged with the Minister on this legislation on 20 April 2021 and, since then, we heard the views and concerns of stakeholders at our meeting on 11 May 2021.

I welcome back the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Charlie McConalogue, who is accompanied by Dr. Cecil Beamish, assistant secretary general with responsibility for fisheries, Ms Josephine Kelly, principal officer, sea-fisheries policy and management division, and Mr. John Kinsella, principal officer, legal services division. They are all joining remotely from a witness room in Kildare House and are all welcome to the meeting.

Briefing materials have been circulated in advance of this meeting to the members. The Minister's opening statement from the meeting dated 20 April 2021 has been re-circulated and is taken as read.

Before I call the Minister, I will read the note on privilege. Witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they are to give to the committee. However, if directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter and they continue to do, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege with respect to build evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

I call on the Minister to make his opening remarks, which will be followed by questions from members.

I thank the Chair. I gave a comprehensive opening statement on the last day, so I am keen to allow members the opportunity to engage, to have a discussion and to raise questions around the Bill. At the outset, I thank the Chair and members for the prompt consideration of this pre-legislative scrutiny. I thank those who have made contributions and have attended hearings so far. I hope today we will be able to deal with outstanding issues and questions. If any issues arise today which I cannot bring clarity on, I will certainly revert promptly with further written responses, so the committee can conclude its pre-legislative scrutiny and its pre-legislative report to inform the further development of the Bill.

I thank the Minister. Three Deputies wish to ask questions. I will start with Deputy Collins.

I thank the Minister for being with us today. I have a number of questions for the Minister in relation to the crisis we have right now in fishing, with the weighing situation. Fishermen have contacted me from south-west Cork and from along the coastline, all the way to Donegal. Representatives of the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority, SFPA, appeared before the committee on 20 April. I think they were either misleading us or they were mistaken because they said they were in consultation with the industry in relation to all issues. However, at 4 p.m. on 16 April 2021, there was no issue whatsoever in relation to the weighing of fish but by 5 p.m. there was a change in the weighing of fish, which has been detrimental to the inshore fishermen, to the pelagic fisherman. When was the Minister made aware of this?

Would Deputy Collins like to ask the questions individually?

I thank the Deputy. There has been an ongoing process in relation to this for a significant period of time. It goes back initially to an audit, which was carried out by the European Commission in 2018, followed then by an administrative inquiry in 2019, which the Commission carried out. We got the results of that administrative inquiry just before Christmas. In that, the Commission indicated that it did not have confidence that the systems we had in place were robust enough in terms of ensuring compliance with the Common Fisheries Policy regulations. It also indicated its intention to revoke the control plan, and that is the position it was in. The Commission's final decision would have been communicated to us at the same time as the Sea-Fisheries Protection Authority, SFPA. Obviously, that was a Commission decision and not one which the SFPA would have decided on. It was one which followed on from administrative inquiry the Commission carried out. The main impact of it is that it means that we cannot do the in-factory weighing, which the derogation control plan provided for. That has undoubtedly has had a significant impact on fishers and on processors in relation to the weighing of fish. It has had an impact on some piers more than others, depending on where the factories are and it means that weighing has to happen before transport. It does not revoke the sampling plan, which applies to the whitefish sector, but it requires the sampling plan. If they are being transported away from the pierside for weighing, it is required to be used. I do not diminish for a second the challenge this has led to for the sector. I know the SFPA has been consulting with all fishers, companies, stakeholders and food business operators in relation to its impact. I know it outlined to the committee earlier this week the process involved in reinstating a control plan.

I thank the Minister, and I respect that, but is he saying he was made aware of this before Christmas? The fishing industry was not made aware this until 4 p.m. on 16 April 2021. Why was there not some work done between Christmas and April, before it was announced and before industry was told of the changes? What happened in those four months? We are in a situation where it was two months before we were told; it could have been three or four months. We were told two months before a decision is going to be made what is going to happen. These two months are going to be detrimental to inshore fishing and hugely difficult to all fishermen, for that matter. It looks to me as though there was a decision made in Europe at Christmas. Whether it was opposed or argued, I cannot answer that. However, January, February, March and April went by and the industry was not notified that there could be changes or that there was a concern. It made it very clear to this committee during the week that it had heard nothing about this.

I suppose it speaks to the importance of the control plan. Prior to 2012, from which that control plan dates, it was not possible to weigh in factories, in the way the control plan and the derogation that was in it allowed for. Without a doubt, that is so much more practical and easier to operate for fishers and processors, but the revocation of the control plan is a Commission decision. Until such time as it does that and brings it through its process and notify us of it, it will not happen. It will only be whenever it does that, it will happen. Unfortunately, that puts an onus in dealing with the new situation. Some interim time was provided - I think it runs until 1 June 2021 - following on from the revocation of the control plan for the competent authority, which is SFPA, to engage with fishers and processors and to respond to and deal with the new situation. That is what has been happening since this revocation.

I have two minor questions because I know other members would like to get in. The Taoiseach signed a statutory instrument while acting as Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, during a very short period of time. The statutory instrument brought in penalty points. Can the Minister sign a statutory instrument bringing us back to the situation we were in in relation to the weighing of fish until a solution is found to which everybody agrees?

The second question concerns the PwC report in 2020, which was damning. The head of the SFPA is now heading off to a big job in Europe. Was it right for that person to be involved in this audit and that that person had applied for or got such a position, given the timing of the revoking of the weighing derogation? I would appreciate it if the Minister could answer that.

I thank the Deputy. In terms of the national statutory instrument, it is not within the competence of Ireland, as a member state, to provide ourselves with our own derogation from the control plan. The regulations around this are set by the European Commission and, under the Common Fisheries Policy, there is an obligation on each member state, through the relevant competent authorities, in our case the SFPA, to apply those regulations. We are legally obliged to comply with them under the Common Fisheries Policy and every member state must do the same.

The control plan was put in place in 2012 and, from that point on, under a derogation within it, the control plan provided for weighing in-factory as opposed to weighing at-pier, and this was approved by the Commission. Now that the Commission has revoked that control plan, we default to the default scenario of having to apply the regulations without derogations under a national control plan. Without a new control plan being put in place and agreed by the Commission, we have to apply the rules as they stand and the Common Fisheries Policy regulations as they stand. There will have to be engagement with the Commission in terms of moving forward with a new control plan, and I know the SFPA outlined the process involved in that when it met with the committee on Tuesday.

In regard to the PwC report, we have discussed on a number of occasions the organisational challenges within the SFPA, the steps that were taken in terms of the conducting of that PwC report and how the organisation can reform itself and deal with some of the issues that were identified in the report. There are many key recommendations within that and there is an implementation committee and an advisory committee which are working with the SFPA in regard to implementing that. It has also brought on board a new member of staff to assist with the implementation of that report.

In regard to the recent appointment of the head of the SFPA to a role in the European authority, that was an open competition and is a reflection on the person's capacity to win through that open competition. The Deputy mentioned the audit and the administrative inquiry. That proceeded throughout 2018 and then into 2019, and resulted in the European Commission completing the administrative inquiry and notifying us before Christmas, which was a separate matter entirely. I wish Dr. Steele well on her recent appointment. It is obviously a reflection on her ability that she came through that public appointment process.

I thank the Minister. I am still mystified by the fact the Minister knew before Christmas that this was happening and nothing happened, as far as we can see, until 16 April and nobody was consulted. I find that very hard to believe. I do not understand what went wrong there but other members can ask that question.

The Minister will be aware that we dealt with the pre-legislative scrutiny at the last meeting and with the lower threshold for conviction than the threshold of beyond a reasonable doubt. Obviously, every citizen in the State would expect to be convicted beyond a reasonable doubt, which is the globally understood threshold, yet we have in place a threshold of the balance of probabilities, even though the UK, when it was a member of the European Union, interpreted this differently. We are talking about somebody's livelihood potentially being taken away and, certainly, their reputation being affected. The threshold of the balance of probabilities is a serious issue.

I want to link that to the issues that Deputy Collins raised. There is a situation where three national media outlets with wide circulation were clearly presented with this EU audit report, which covers a period from 2012 to 2015 and was submitted in 2018. Clearly, they were provided with this report and that led them to report that there was mass overfishing in the Irish industry by tens of thousands of tonnes. This was at a time when we had lost major quota as a result of Brexit and where we had an industry under the cosh, and it is reported that they have been overfishing and have been messing around with weighing scales, and that the State needs to give back tens of millions.

It made for brutal reading yet nobody in the industry has been given a copy of this report. Can the Minister imagine that I had placed charges against him which affected his reputation and his livelihood, and he was given none of the evidence to justify those charges? Three national media outlets were clearly given a report that the industry has not been given. I submitted a parliamentary question to the Minister and he confirmed that he cannot provide this report.

We then have the SFPA administrative inquiry, which we understand confirms that this report is correct and endorses it. That leads us to this real crisis that affects every single pier and harbour across the State. Does the Minister think it is acceptable that a whole industry, which is under the cosh, would be faced with such damning allegations against its reputation without any right to see the actual evidence on which that is based?

I thank the Deputy. Ireland is a member state within the European Union and, as a country, we represent our industry and our sector. Domestically, the SFPA is the competent authority for enforcement and applying and overseeing the Common Fisheries Policy and the regulations within that. It is clear and is public knowledge that the Commission has publicly published its findings from the administrative inquiry, in particular the three or four pages indicating it has come to a conclusion around the revocation of the control plan. It has outlined that, as a result of the administrative inquiry and the audit prior to that, it did not have confidence in regard to the control systems we had in place, in particular the weighing systems. As a member state, we have to defend that and engage with the Commission on its findings. It is Ireland, as a member state, that the finding is against, as opposed to an individual fisher or the industry. Therefore, we have to respond and engage with the Commission in response to that.

The Deputy is right in regard to the impact this has on the sector, and we have seen that in regard to the administrative revocation of the control plan and the impact that has had. There has been much comment also on the potential for a repayment of fish emerging from that and for this also to be part of the outcome of the administrative inquiry of the Commission.

The administrative inquiry is a legal process under EU law whereby the Commission engages the member state directly, and that is a legal process between both. I had sought to engage with the Commission as to the possibility of being able to publish the wider documentation around that. However, the regulations in law were clear and the Commission has clearly indicated to me that it is not appropriate for me, as Minister, to publish the documents that are currently part of that legal process between Ireland, as a member state, and the European Commission. That is the situation.

I take the Deputy’s point in regard to the fact there is information out there, and he referred to a copy of the report that has been in the public domain in recent days.

That is the situation. It is certainly not something that can be condoned by anyone; it should not be happening. On the formal process between ourselves as a member state and the EU Commission, and the clear advice on the publication of the documents that are part of that as I engage with them on behalf the country, the advice and the direction is very clear from the Commission on how that operates as is the fact that information stays between the Commission and Ireland as we deal with that legal process.

The Minister is probably limited in what he can say but I know him as a colleague in County Donegal for a long time. I think he knows that it is appalling that this report has been leaked and reported on at national level and the industry has had no chance to defend itself by seeing the actual evidence. The industry protests that it is the most regulated. The submission from the Irish Fish Processors and Exporters Association spoke to the committee last Tuesday. It states the industry is the most regulated in Europe, far from being this kind of Wild West of over-fishing. As I stated on Tuesday, I had the opportunity recently to observe for myself the weighing system at a fish factory in Killybegs, County Donegal. It is state-of-the-art technology. There are a number of seals around the weighing device to prevent it from being tampered with, there are CCTV cameras observing all the fish as they are weighed in real time and those monitors feed directly to the SFPA offices. That is a remarkable level of oversight. Then, at the back end of the factory, one can see packages with 20 kg of fish, with 60 on each trolley, weighing 1.2 tonnes. One can go into the freezer. Industry representatives say they are most regulated fish processors in Europe and it far from the Wild West. The processors allow free access into their factory. The National Standards Authority of Ireland can make unannounced inspections at any time to make sure the proper weighing device is being used. I was taken aback. I cannot think of any industry in this country that is subject to that level of oversight by the regulator, with CCTV cameras watching everything and officials able to come in at any time. The industry accepts that is what needs to be done to clear its name.

I understand the SFPA, the regulator, has not prosecuted any factory, and there are plenty of them throughout the State. No factory has been prosecuted in a court of law. There may have been one case, which is disputed, through the NSAI. That involves one factory at one moment across the entire State, yet we have allowed a situation where our reputation has been tarnished and our industry accused of being like the Wild West. Our factories are not on the pier and harbour as in other European countries and the fish have to be transported in a way that does not damage them, because no one wants to damage the value particularly when margins are getting tighter and tighter, along with the quotas. They have to be transported from the pier or harbour. Fish have to be weighed without water. There is state-of-the-art technology and complete oversight, but having witnessed this myself, I cannot get my head around how the SFPA officials did not beat their chests about how they are the best regulators in Europe and how the industry is subject to unbelievable oversight and there is nothing to worry about because we can make damn sure no overfishing is permitted. No Oireachtas Member would have any tolerance for illegality or overfishing when this precious resource must be maintained; what we want is more of it in Irish waters for our Irish fishers. We do not want overfishing and the destruction of species in our waters. However, we want a greater share for Irish fishers.

I will not ask any more questions as that was a very long synopsis. Does the Minister accept that the SFPA, an organisation whose structures and organisation was recently subject to a damning review, have serious questions to answer having allowed this profound failing? Whatever his comments today, I ask him to do something about it. Will he amend the legislation before us to put in place an independent board to oversee the SFPA? He could do that by tabling an amendment. It would make the authority get its act together and do its job, and not allow our industry to be tarnished when it should be held up an example for its practices.

I fully understand the challenges that the revocation of our control plan represents for the sector, particularly the white fish sector, which are very difficult indeed. The committee had a thorough discussion on this with the SFPA earlier in the week. Operational matters relating to weighing coming under its remit, not mine as Minister. Legally I am precluded from being involved in operational matters, and as an Oireachtas Member, Deputy Mac Lochlainn will understand that. We are in this situation because of the findings of he audit and administrative inquiry carried out by the Commission. That is the reality we must deal with and on which I am engaged with them. A legal process is ongoing on that, in which I am representing ourselves as a member state, and defending and representing our position. That is ongoing. It does not take away from the fact that fisheries is massively regulated, as we all know. I sat on this committee for four years and had many engagements on this. Being from a fisheries county, the same as Deputy Mac Lochlainn, and being closely in contact with fishers throughout my political career, I know how regulated the industry is. That is the situation in Ireland as it is in member states where the Common Fisheries Policy applies. There are quotas for every species, they have to be weighed and monitored. which involves significant red tape and imposes a large administrative burden on those operating in the industry.

We find ourselves in a very challenging position as a member state under the Common Fisheries Policy. As a result of the administrative inquiry, despite the regulation we have in place, the Commission found that operators did not have in place a weighing system that was fit for purpose. Consequently it found the control plan did not minimise the risk of systematic manipulation of weighing so it did not have confidence that it was sufficiently robust to be fully effective. That is what the Commission has found and that is what we have to deal with in the revocation of the control plan and ensuring a new control plan is put in place, which the SFPA will be in charge of, that addresses the Commission's findings in its administrative inquiry. That is the situation we are in. It is really challenging and very difficult. There are other aspects to the administrative inquiry findings such as the potential for repayment of fish, which is currently part of the legal process and which I am defending on behalf of Ireland. This is the situation I have to deal with and the sector must deal with as well because that is the reality of the Commission's findings.

I thank the Minister for attending. My questions will be in the same vein as those asked by some other committee members. When many Members of the Oireachtas who are not members of this committee feel it is important to add their voices, it shows the significance of and frustration around this issue.

I have been an elected politician for almost 20 years. In my political career, I have never known fishers to be so annoyed as they are by the recent proposal. All of the people in the industry who sent me emails and made phone calls said that they were fully compliant with the new regulations, they were heavily regulated by the SFPA, there had been major changes over the past ten, 15 or 20 years - they were not happy with all of those changes, but they waded in behind them - and their costs had increased. Now, they are being asked to weigh their fish on the pier. There are good reasons not to do that. This issue has annoyed those in the industry. If something is not done by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and common sense does not prevail, fishers will take drastic action that will force the Department into going back to allowing them to weigh in factories.

I will give the example of Kilmore pier in south County Wexford. It is a large pier and sees a considerable amount of fishing activity. If every fisher is asked to weigh fish on the pier, a health and safety issue will arise. The pier is accessible to the general public, including children. Fishers could instead travel less than 500 m up the road to the processors or factories.

I agree with Deputy Mac Lochlainn. How many processors and factories have been prosecuted over the past one, five, ten or 20 years because of a weighing issue? One sector is being pitted against another. Some sectors are blaming another for what is happening across the board. This is having an impact that is annoying to the industry.

The Minister is aware that Ireland is known for its quality, fresh fish. Weighing fish on the quayside will take that status away from us. The quality will not be as good and the fish will not be as fresh. Many of the boats go out in the morning and come back in the evening. Since they do not have refrigeration units on their boats, they take their fish to the factory where the fish can be fully refrigerated, everything is done well and the quality of the fish can be preserved.

I urge the Minister to listen to the industry and what members of the committee are saying and to reverse this decision. He has said that it is out of his hands, but he must stand up for the industry.

As the Deputy knows, I cannot get into the ins and outs of the weighing and operational matters because those are matters for the SFPA. The committee had an engagement with the SFPA this week and it is open to the committee to have a more detailed engagement with the authority on this matter.

Our challenge is that the European Commission is the overall authority for setting regulations and managing the Common Fisheries Policy. We, as a member state, are part of that policy. As a result of its administrative inquiry, the Commission did not have confidence in the system that we had in place. Its implementing decision reads:

Ireland could not guarantee an effective control of landed quantities of catches and minimise the risk of non-compliance with the rules of the Common Fisheries Policy. The failure to ensure appropriate weighing also puts at risk the accuracy of the data reported that are essential for control purposes ...

Therefore, it revoked our control plan. That is what the Commission decided. It is the Commission's legal competence. I understand the significant challenge that this has resulted in for fishers on piers across the country. I also understand the importance of having a new control plan in place, a matter that the SFPA discussed with the committee in detail on Tuesday when it outlined its engagement process and how such a new plan could be introduced.

What has come out of the administrative inquiry process is challenging. Indeed, there are many challenges in the sector at the moment and we did not need another like this. Nonetheless, it is one that we must face up to and address. We must work at all levels to do the best by our national industry.

I welcome the Minister. I do not know whether he can answer me, but there are 33 cases of suspected fraud according to the report. How were they identified? From where does the estimated figure of more than 40,000 tonnes come? How many factories are suspected as having been involved in the fraud? Is it the case that there are a few rogue factories but the whole industry is being painted with the same brush? The fisheries groups that have appeared before us have denied point blank any fraud. I do not understand what the fishing industry has done to find itself being governed by standards that it is widely acknowledged would not be accepted in any other industry for even one minute.

The issue of the report being leaked arose during the week. It is crazy that the report was out in December and sections of the media had it before the fishers.

I wish to refer to the penalty point system and weighing. Can the Minister justify any situation in which points would remain on a master's record even if the outcome of the prosecution found that there was no evidence of any wrongdoing? Does he believe this is a fair and equitable way of treating an industry? According to his opening statement, a level playing field must be established across the EU's fisheries. This happens nowhere else in Europe, though, so saying that it is about a level playing field is a fallacy. The industry is dealing with the outcome of Brexit, it is competing with other nations for which the same penalty point system does not apply, and it is now being told that it must tie up at ports to weigh catches in a manner that could affect quality, will be time consuming and could be costly for the fishers. Who would want to be involved in an industry in which the balance of probability could determine whether he or she could continue trading?

I wish to raise two issues as regards weighing. Is the Minister concerned that the added workload and financial cost associated with all of this will cost jobs?

Many of the operators are economically marginal. That came across in the Irish Islands Marine Resource Organisation's submission to us.

Second, how aware is the EU of the level of concern officials have expressed about this sudden change? What discussions has the Department had with the Commission on this? Has the Department relayed our fishers' concerns to the Commission?

The matter Deputy Browne raised regarding prosecutions etc. needs to be addressed to the SFPA directly. To make a general point, we have across the country fishers and so many others working in our fishing sector, which employs 16,000 overall and is worth €1 billion to our economy. It is such an important sector, has a really strong and sustainable future and can add value but also must deal with the undoubted impact, unfortunately, from Brexit, which will impact 15% of our national quota between now and 2026. There is no doubt but that the revocation of the control plan impacts everyone in the sector, but without a doubt the vast majority of people working in the sector and the vast majority of fishers work really hard. It is a really difficult lifestyle. They go to great lengths to comply with the rules and regulations. It is very important we say that and make that clear. They deserve our recognition and our thanks for that.

Alongside that, however, we have a reality we have to deal with as a member state which concerns our control plan and the administrative inquiry the European Commission conducted. There are issues that have to be addressed as a result of that. The inquiry found that Ireland, as a member state, was not meeting its obligations arising from meeting the regulations through its control plan because the risk of non-compliance with the rules of the Common Fisheries Policy could not be minimised. The assessment and the audit done by the Commission found there were issues which arose and which they came across which meant the Commission did not feel the control plan we had in place could ensure all the rules were being met. The revocation of that control plan and the fact that factory weighing, which was much more practical for so many, has gone has been very challenging. I know the SFPA is dealing, consulting and liaising daily with fishers and those who process fish on the impact of this. It has led to tremendous difficulties. We cannot, however, wish it away. We have to deal with it. It has had an impact, and as Minister I have to deal with the administrative inquiry and that legal process with the European Commission. The control plan revocation is just one aspect of it which has had an immediate impact on our fishers. There are other aspects of it which I am dealing with as part of that legal process. I know that when the SFPA met with the committee last week, it outlined how it is engaging regarding the practical situation that now applies and how it will engage at an operational level with the European Commission move towards getting a control plan back in place and its intentions in that regard.

Regarding Deputy Browne's other point about the interconnectedness between the master's control point system and the courts system, if a master were to receive penalty points under the legislation and under the points system, he or she would have the option of an oral hearing with a determination panel. He or she then has the option to appeal that further to an appeals officer and then the option, on a point of law, to appeal that to the High Court. If the High Court, on a point of law, were to find in favour of the master, the penalty points would fall in that instance. That is the points system. It is an administrative system, not a criminal system. It does not involve a criminal conviction. What happens is that you get points on your master's licence. If you accumulate a certain number of points - I think it is 90 in total - you can lose your master's licence. If you get some points and within three years do not receive any more points, those points fall off your licence. If you receive points and over the course of those three years get more points, you hold onto the ones you have got, the additional points you get accrue and the three-year clock resets. If you do not get any more points within the next three years, those points then fall off your licence as well. Ultimately, in the event of your getting the 90 points, you would lose your licence as a master. This is not a criminal sanction but an administrative sanction whereby you are no longer able to operate as a master if you accrue that number of penalty points. That is the impact of that.

It is similar to what would have happened regarding the licence holders within the licence holder penalty points system that was introduced by statutory instrument last year. It is therefore not a criminal system but an administrative system. There is an obligation on all EU member states to have such a system in place. In fact, we are the only EU member state at this stage that does not have a penalty points system in place for masters' licences. The obligation on member states to introduce one has been in place since 2012 and we are now the only state that does not have one. On that point, and regarding a level playing field, other member states would certainly be able to make the point that without us having such a system in place, and because we are the only one that does not have it in place, there is not a level playing field. Because we are the only member state that has not introduced it so far, the European Commission has taken infringement proceedings against us in the form of a reasoned opinion and has suspended our funding by up to €26 million already, with the potential for that to increase to €38 million. The next step after that, if we do not meet our obligations to introduce a masters' penalty points system, would be for us to be taken to the Court of Justice by the European Commission for non-compliance. That is the situation that pertains in that regard, and that is the reason we have to bring in a penalty points system, as is the obligation on other EU member states. Ultimately, it is about ensuring that people comply with the regulations and, in particular, given that the vast majority do so, that there is a mechanism in place whereby those who do not comply can be penalised. That was the principle and the theory behind its introduction.

I am sitting in for Senator Boyhan.

Earlier this year the Minister designated seven of our ports in which foreign trawlers will be able to land their catch post Brexit, particularly UK-registered and Northern Ireland-registered vessels. Is the delivery of penalty points to the skipper on a foreign-registered vessel a possibility under this legislation? If we stop a foreign truck driver, we cannot give him or her penalty points here under our system. Can we do that with foreign skippers?

This would apply to all members within the Common Fisheries Policy. This is an EU penalty points system, so where there are infringements on the part of other EU member states' vessels in our waters and where we are the competent authority, we can issue penalty points and notify their competent authority and their member state and those points would be administered in that member state. It is an EU-wide system.

Because the UK is now outside of the Common Fisheries Policy, and this is an approach of this policy, it does not apply to the UK. One has the same challenge there as one has on driving penalty points on the island where we can apply penalty points within the Republic but not on licences from the UK. It would be much preferable and would meet the objectives in a better way if we can arrange a system-----

I am sorry to cut across the Minister here and I get his point, and strictly speaking then it is not a level playing field. We have foreign-registered fleets allowed to access our ports but we are only going to apply the rigours of the law to some of them and mostly to our own as we cannot apply it to the UK vessels or to Northern Ireland registered vessels.

The penalty point system can only be applied to other EU member states’ vessels.

If a non-EU vessel breaches the EU regulations the criminal sanctions can be applied and those infringing these can be taken to court and prosecuted for that. Because the penalty points are administrative and are within the EU competence, they do not apply to the UK. Ideally, the objective is to try to ensure that there is a system in place to prevent a very small minority who might breach the regulations. It would make much more sense if the UK can be part of that. They were part of that up until Brexit. This is another reflection of the impact of Brexit. It is possible that there can be engagement between the EU and Britain to agree bilaterally that the system would apply. That would require the agreement of both. Likewise, when our vessels are in British waters, the licensing system and points system is different with the British authorities.

The measures for weighing include UK vessels, for example. Do they have to weigh their catch? I am talking about vessels landing in Irish ports.

All fish have to be weighed. The competent authority has the systems and some arrangements in place whereby the sampling plan can apply.

Do we have to weigh the catch that is landed here from Northern Ireland and UK vessels?

Yes, it would have to be weighed if it was landing in to ourselves here.

On what basis, now that they are out of the quota, would we be weighing their catch?

On the basis that it still comes under the arrangements for the management of waters, between British waters and Common Fisheries Policy waters. Up until Brexit, British waters were part of the Common Fisheries Policy waters. Now we have reciprocal access to waters so there will also be reciprocal arrangements on the management and the weighing of fish and of those species within quotas because there are now agreed quotas between the UK and the EU.

Has that been currently agreed in a regulation?

I can come back to the Deputy on the finer detail of this but there is an ongoing relationship and negotiations at the moment between the EU and the UK in respect of quota agreement for the remainder of the year and in respect of common rules and regulations on these quotas in how fish can be caught and safety measures to protect those species that are under pressure and threat.

I am aware of all of that, but can the Minister return to me please on where things are at on a statutory and legal basis? I thank the Minister.

I will come back to the Deputy with a written clarification on the type of arrangements.

The Minister has paraphrased the report from the EU somewhat in what he has quoted. The report actually states on page 44, at paragraph 5.1 of conclusions, on the third last paragraph:

Due to a lack of resources dedicated to control Ireland only met one of eight benchmarks to fully inspect landings of bulk pelagic species in 2017 which undermines the ability to ensure an effective control system.

On whom is this obligation to provide the system?

Say that again, please, Deputy Murphy, on the obligation point.

Who has the obligation to provide the weighing and control system and mechanism, the weighing machines etc.?

That would be an operational matter for the Sea Fisheries Protection Authority, SFPA, which is the competent authority there.

With due respect to the Minister, it is the competent authority but this is something that relates to Ireland. This report did not go back to the SFPA, it came back to the Irish Government. Is it fair to say that it is actually up to the Minister to fund the SFPA and to put the control mechanism in place? The SFPA is already in receipt of millions of euros. In the past two years it has received, I believe, in excess of €24 million, and it has brought no actual prosecutions and has put us in jeopardy, as the Minister has said of €38 million, and it may be a little bit more. There is no prosecution and it has no mechanism for weighing fish. Anything to do with the weighing of fish in the method that it is proposing is a food safety hazard, apart from anything else, and it is putting at risk all of the produce that is caught and has to be weighed on the quayside in the sun, where ice is dumped. Most of the quayside’s do not even have the ability to even provide ice. Yet, this is what we are moving forward with, with funding of millions of euros coming to the SFPA. The Minister is absolving himself of any responsibility to provide weighing mechanisms.

The Road Safety Authority, RSA, does not ask hauliers to weigh their trucks. It is the enforcement agency and it must provide the weighing machines that are installed on the side of the roads. If it has weigh pads, these are brought out with the authority and are calibrated every time they are moved. Every time a movable weighing mechanism is moved, it must be calibrated, because the act of movement in itself uncalibrates it and it has to be calibrated every time it lands. We have small piers in Wexford, in Duncannon, Kilmore Quay and Ballyhack. None of these piers, and Kilmore Quay is the biggest of these, has a weighing mechanism for outside. There is no way that this is going to be enforced in the same way upon foreign vessels as it will be on Irish fishing vessels. That is already the case here.

There were 153 inspections carried out from information I received from a parliamentary question that I asked a number of weeks ago. In the six-week period from mid-February to the end of March 2021, the SFPA carried out 153 inspections. I would say that that is quite sizeable given that our fishing boats only come back to pier once a week and there were no serious infringements. Yet, we have the EU telling us that we are not capable. These were inspections carried out, by the way, before we saw the headline in the press that we were not capable of administering a control mechanism. What does the Minister have to say to that?

I thank Deputy Murphy. As I mentioned, the operation and management of the weighing side of things is an operational matter, legally, which the Deputy will be aware of as a legislator, under the Sea-Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction Act 2006, which sets out where everything stands on this and designates the SFPA as the legally competent authority for all operational matters as to the control of these regulations.

Resourcing of the SFPA, national policy, and the provision of resources, is a matter for the Minister. The SFPA has significant resources and additional resources have also been provided. It is important that this body is well-resourced as to the role that it has to carry out.

Under the EU regulations and law, the industry is legally required to provide for the weighing of fish. The SFPA carries out a certain amount of weighing for the purposes of control.

They manage that aspect of it. Other than that, the industry carries it out. Does that answer Deputy Murphy's question?

No. I ask the Minister to go back for a minute. Is the Minister saying that the SFPA is in charge of enforcement?

To whom is the SFPA answerable?

It is an independent authority under law. It is answerable to this committee, the Oireachtas. I know this committee had a meeting with representatives of the SFPA earlier this week. It is directly accountable to the Oireachtas and to committees of the Oireachtas.

On that basis, was the report issued from Europe to the SFPA?

The revocation of the control plan would have been, yes.

However, it is not carrying out infringement proceedings against the SFPA, is it?

The administrative inquiry is against Ireland, as a member state. I, as Minister, have policy responsibility. The SFPA is the competent authority for control.

I do not want to go around in circles. The point I am trying to make here is the Minister has a report that he needs to deal with. It amounts to €40 million, as the Minister has said several times. We have an enforcement agency that is not answerable to him; it is answerable to a committee. What mechanism can the Minister put in place to ensure that the SFPA does not land us in this scenario again? Apart from anything else, there is very little evidence to support what the EU has said, except that that evidence is based on what has been submitted by the SFPA already. If the scenario the EU outlined to the Minister were genuine, we would surely see some criminal prosecutions or prosecutions of some nature to justify the level of criticism made of the industry.

Findings of the administrative inquiry deem that the control plan we had in place and the systems we had in place were not sufficient to ensure the risks of non-compliance were being dealt with. That is why it has revoked it.

Therefore, that was not sufficient-----

Deputy Murphy should allow the Minister to answer.

As Minister, I have responsibility for policy. I also have responsibility to resource the SFPA appropriately for the important job it needs to carry out. Section 68 of the Sea-Fisheries and Maritime Jurisdiction Act 2006 very clearly outlines that the authority, the SFPA, shall "whenever required by the Committee of Dáil Éireann established under the Standing Orders of Dáil Éireann to examine and report to Dáil Éireann on the appropriation accounts and reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General, attend before and give evidence to that Committee on [various matters]".

The committee on which Deputy Verona Murphy sits has a very important role in the accountability procedures. The law very clearly sets out that it is legally separate from the Minister and that there should not be crossover between the Minister and the SFPA on operational matters. If there were, I, as Minister, would be breaking the law. Therefore, the accountability is on Deputy Verona Murphy - I know she is a temporary committee member today - on the committee and on the Houses of the Oireachtas instead.

I ask the Minister to clarify for me that the weighing of the fish is not the responsibility to provide the control mechanism, the weight mechanism, of the fisherman.

I ask the Deputy to repeat her question.

I ask the Minister to confirm it is not the responsibility of the fishermen to provide the weighing mechanism to weigh the fish on the quayside.

It is the legal responsibility of the industry to weigh the fish-----

-----wherever that weighing takes place. Where the SFPA is conducting a controlled weighing, the SFPA carries that out.

However, they must provide the weighing scales.

The industry does. It might be useful to outline article 60 of the EU regulations on the weighing of fishery products:

Registered buyers, registered auctions or other bodies or persons which are responsible for the first marketing of fisheries products in a Member State shall be responsible for the accuracy of the weighing operation unless, in accordance with paragraph 3, the weighing takes place on board a fishing vessel, in which case it shall be the master’s responsibility.

I thank the Minister.

I have some questions for the Minister on the control plan and I would like to ask a few supplementary questions after that. I will keep it tight because I see that other members have indicated also.

Regarding the derogation of the control plan, Deputy Mac Lochlainn has already outlined how the measures that are being used in processing plants at the moment are extremely accurate, traceable and transparent, and use state-of-the-art technology. Deputy Kehoe alluded to the fact that the fishing sector and fishing community are up in arms. There is a considerable level of anger because of a series of events, including the revocation of the control plan.

The Minister has explained that he cannot intervene to reintroduce a control plan or to override the decision of the Commission on the revocation of the control plan. He has explained that the Bill does not allow him to do that. What can he do? Earlier this week representatives of the SFPA informed the committee that it would be a minimum of two months before it could introduce a new control plan. Surely the Department has a role to intervene. At the moment the piers do not have the infrastructure to weigh product. The fishing sector has been left at a significant disadvantage and in an incredibly difficult position because that infrastructure is not in place. Surely there is a role for the Department to step in and help them to provide this infrastructure in the interim. Two months is a long time for a business.

The SFPA suggested that the reintroduction of the control plan would be for the white fish sector and the shellfish sector only. What about the pelagic sector? There is talk of the introduction of weighbridges at piers. That will lead to considerable difficulty because if weighbridges are to be used and fish are being weighed on the back of a truck water needs to be taken into account. Deputy Mac Lochlainn talked about the accuracy of in-plant weighing. Using weighbridges for trucks where water, ice and other factors are involved, takes away from the accuracy that the Commission and the SFPA are supposed to be seeking. Surely the Minister has a role if the industry is informing him that weighbridges and in-truck weighing on these weighbridges will not work, surely there is scope for maybe not intervention but to actually outline the thoughts and feelings of the sector.

Given how we have got to this point where the control plan has been revoked, does the Minister believe he could commence a restructuring or overhaul of the SFPA? As he has heard from Deputies here, as he has heard from the sector repeatedly and as he has heard in his town hall meetings last night, it is not working. The relationships have broken down and there is a lack of engagement. I ask the Minister to come back to me on the control plan.

I thank the Deputy for his contribution, his ongoing representations to me on behalf of fishers and the fishing community in County Cork and his work on their behalf. As regards weighing and all those operational matters, legally I am precluded from getting into the middle of that. Legally, that is the job of the committee, rather than my job as Minister. The SFPA reports on those matters to, and engages on matters pertinent to it, with the appropriate committees of the Houses of the Oireachtas, not with the Minister. The law prevents me being involved in those matters and assigns the responsibility for engaging on them to the committee. I know the committee met the SFPA earlier this week to discuss these matters in detail. Were I to cross over into operational matters, I would be in breach of the Act. The job of the SFPA is to apply EU regulations as a competent authority. In terms of reporting, engaging and accountability, that is to Oireachtas committees. Policy matters and resourcing the SFPA are matters for me, as Minister. Bringing forward legislation, as I am doing today, and all matters from a policy point of view are my responsibility as Minister, as is engaging at Commission level and representing Ireland as a member state.

As regards restructuring of the SFPA, I referred earlier to the PwC report, which went into great detail in terms of a review of the organisation and setting out many actions to be carried out as part of that. The advisory committee is in place to facilitate that as well. That work is ongoing and it is important that we support and resource it. I will ensure that I do so and keep up to speed with how that is evolving in terms of resourcing it.

I refer to interim financial supports. As I noted, the SFPA stated it would be a minimum of two months before a control plan could be brought for the white fish and shellfish sector. Does the Department have a role in helping the sector to provide interim measures for weighing?

If it is in the operational sense, it is probably a discussion to have with the SFPA with regard to what the -----

We asked its representatives that question and no answer was forthcoming; it just put the matter it back to the industry.

The final issue I wish to raise is not necessarily related to the Bill but relates to the fishing sector and the role of the Minister. The inshore fishing fleet, the white fish sector and the non-quota shellfish sector have obviously been massively impacted since the pandemic. The markets have been obliterated and the price of fish has dropped significantly given the restrictions and the closure of restaurants. There has been a drop in demand and that has caused significant issues for the sector. During the first lockdown, a type of tie-up scheme was introduced for the industry but it did not go anywhere near far enough for the inshore fishing fleet. In some cases, boats were only coming out with €500. It did not come near covering the losses that were suffered. The fishers have been through an incredibly tough time and have had to endure significant losses of income. When there has been a crisis in the farming sector, such as in the beef or dairy sectors, there has been a significant injection of grant aid to that sector. I ask the Minister to please consider doing something for the inshore fleet and the men and women who rely so heavily on fishing for an income to feed their families and pay their mortgages. Can consideration be given to some type of financial supports at a level that is much greater than what was introduced last summer after the first lockdown?

I thank the Deputy. This is an issue he raised with me previously. We have discussed it and I very much understand the pressure the sector has been under, particularly the inshore sector, through the past year. I wish to recognise again the tremendous work done by all in the marine and fishery sector in the past year in keeping food supply chains going in very difficult and challenging circumstances. As the committee will be aware, we liaise closely on the discussion of the task force. The task force is considering the situation with regard to Brexit and within the sector generally and will report to me on an interim basis soon. I will consider the report and its recommendations in terms of the situation with regard to the sector and the supports that might be appropriate.

I thank the Minister.

I agree with much of what has been said. This is an industry that has been under pressure for many years. It is a very difficult industry for anyone who is working in it. It is dependent on weather and catches. What worries me with regard to what is being proposed with weighing is that Irish boats will suffer most. We will not be able to control the foreign boats. We can say what we like but we were not able to do it with fishing and we will not be able to do it with weighing. It will put further pressure on the industry here. I have to be careful in terms of what I say because I am not within the precincts of the Dáil. There seems to be something not right in the industry. Something needs to be done.

I have been a Member of the Dáil for some time and the one thing I have never liked or wanted was for these agencies to be given this kind of power. At the end of the day, the Minister and I have been elected to the Oireachtas and have responsibility to the people, not the State agencies. When this trouble erupts, it will not be the SFPA that will deal with it; it will be the Minister and Oireachtas Members as politicians. I know the committee met on Tuesday. I wanted to attend but I could not do so because the computer I had in Dublin broke down. I am now using my computer in my office here in Westport. I wanted to speak at that meeting. I hope we can bring the SFPA in again because giving power to faceless groups is not good. The Minister is going to have to step in and try to do something for these fishermen.

As regards Europe, I know I will get a bit of stick for stating it has too much power and does not really care about our fishing industry. It has sold the industry down the drain on many occasions. The Minister should take a strong hand with Europe. These fishermen are going through enough and I do not think there is any real reason this should be brought in. It seems to be something that was created by people who think they do not have enough power and should have more power and should have total control over fishermen. I do not like it or what is going on.

I am fully supportive of the fishermen. There is great anger out there. They are very upset and they are in a very difficult industry. It has always been difficult. We have great sympathy for them when people are tragically lost at sea and everybody sees how difficult the job and the life is. Now is the time they need support and we should be there to give them that support. If there is anything that can be done at European level, it should be done. We should not allow this weighing system to come in. None of our fishermen has broken the law, from what I have heard.

If they have, they should be prosecuted. If they are not prosecuted, they have done nothing wrong.

It is a highly regulated sector because the waters are shared across Europe and there are quotas for the various species. That brings red tape and challenges to everyone working in the sector. There is no doubt it is important to ensure the fish that are there are sustainably fished and we will continue to be able to fish them into the future. In 2006, responsibility for overseeing the enforcement of the regulations imposed on us as a member state was allocated to the SFPA. Its role in our waters is similar to the role of the gardaí in policing our roads, etc. It is a similar function and that is why it is separated from the political system. It has specific legal responsibility for that.

I have let in all members who wanted to ask questions. If they want to ask supplementary questions, they can do so now because we want to get the scrutiny of this Bill finished today. We have approximately 40 minutes remaining on the clock in our two-hour allocation. Deputies Collins and Kehoe have indicated.

I have a few more questions I want to ask the Minister. I have listened closely for the past hour and a half, or however long it has been. There is an awful lot of talk that the SFPA is to blame, that the task force is to blame, that the task force going to work on this, or that the SFPA will bring things forward. Nobody is making decisions. As I have said, it now looks as though officials knew this in December. Nobody consulted anyone until April, which is shocking to say the least. That was the time to start talking, but instead we are doing the talking now. We will have another two months of talking and no answers for the man on the ground. That is what I need as a public representative - an answer for the man on the ground.

Our session is two hours long and I am delighted the Minister is here before us. In fairness, he has never shied away from us. I am not personalising any of my criticism, but I have serious concerns about what will happen in the next two months. The Minister has no solution. He is pushing it over to the SFPA and to our committee. We have ferocious power. We have far more power than I ever knew we had. We must bring the SFPA before us on a more frequent basis. It seemed to know something in December that it did not relay to the industry, the public or public representative by 16 April. Then we had a crisis and now we are now playing catch-up.

I am still asking the same question. Can the Minister intervene this evening, or tomorrow morning, to try at least to find a short-term solution that everyone will agree to? I think the system that was in place was quite adequate. The powers that be could say that it is not above our heads and stand up to Europe a small bit because we need some strength on the ground in Ireland. The Irish fishing industry is getting walked on left, right, and centre. To me, this is a push. There is so much apathy, unhappiness and mental health issues out there because of this carry-on that fishermen are going to say to themselves that they will get the hell out of this mess. This is a nice handy way to push them towards decommissioning. That is the feeling on the ground out there. What is going to happen? I asked the Minister that question yesterday. What will happen to the fishermen who decommission their boats, the people who work on those boats and the rural communities in Castletownbere and elsewhere? What will happen to those rural communities? What is planned for them? I would like an answer that goes beyond saying that the task force is coming forward with ideas. I want to know the thoughts of the Minister in this regard, rather than those of the task force. I want to know why four months elapsed. Now we are at a crisis stage. It looks like another two months will elapse before we get a decision. What is going to happen with the fishing industry? It is on its knees. I would appreciate it if the Minister would answer me. I do not want to hear what the SFPA thinks or what the task force thinks. Who is the task force made up of? As a committee, can we find out who the members of the task force are?

As Minister, my only objective is to make the most of our marine and fisheries sector, and to support it in every way I can. That is my sole objective. A core objective, as Minister, is to work with it and ensure we have a sustainable fishery into the future. I want to have an industry that is as healthy as possible, delivers maximum employment, makes the most of our coastal resources and the potential for added value and parallel business, and supports businesses and enterprises.

It has been a challenging six months. It has been a challenging four years because we have had the threat of Brexit hanging over us, without knowing what was going to come out of it. We have had a challenging time since then in terms of the impact it has had. I believe the sector is going to be strong, healthy and sustainable as we go into the future. As Minister, I will work in every way I can to ensure that is the case. In the immediate term, we must deal with the short-term impact, which will continue into the future in terms of the impact on our quotas. We must support the sector in adjusting to and building out of that. I will work in any way I can at European level to ensure we get as strong a quota allocation as possible.

The task force is very important. It is made up of representatives for whom fishing is important. It is their livelihood and their profession, and they depend on it. They represent all that is good about our fishing and marine sector. There was an opportunity for members of the public to submit their ideas, suggestions and proposals to the task force. It would have been open to Deputy Collins to submit his ideas and suggestions to the task force for its consideration. That work will continue. I expect it to report on an interim basis, shortly, and on a full-time basis after that. While I have many ideas about how we can bring the industry forward, I want to be guided - it is right that this be the case - by those who know it best and were there a long time before I arrived. I refer to those who work in it, those who live in it and those who were born into it in many cases as well. That is why the task force is the right way to go to guide all of us on how we can develop the sector in the time ahead, and, importantly, how we can support the sector through investment in the time ahead.

In relation to the membership of the task force, it is under the chairmanship of Aidan Cotter. I thank him and the steering committee of Margaret Daly and Mícheál Ó Cinnéide for their Trojan work. I will not give the names of the individual members, but I will give the names of the organisations and stakeholders that are represented. They include the Killybegs Fishermen’s Organisation; the Irish Fish Producers Organisation, the Irish South and West Fish Producers Organisation; the Irish South and East Fish Producers Organisation, the Irish Islands Marine Resource Organisation; the National Inshore Fisheries Forum; one representative from each of the four co-ops around the country that play such an important role in our sector; the Irish Fish Processors and Exporters Association; the Irish Farmers Association, which represents aquaculture and is its main representative body in the country; the fisheries local action groups, FLAGs; the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine; Bord Iascaigh Mhara, which provides the secretariat; Enterprise Ireland; Tourism Ireland; the Local Government Management Agency - we have two county managers from two coastal county councils; LEADER and Údarás na Gaeltachta. It is a very broad and representative membership of those within our coastal communities who depend on fishing for their livelihoods, and consider it the anchor and a key contributor to their businesses and communities.

I will be very brief. Has the Minister met any representative associations on the specific issue of weighing on the pier?

I am clear on the additional costs that have been borne by the fishermen for the infrastructure that has to be put in place. I was unaware of the powers we had through the SFPA and the committee. I am unsure if this committee could hold these people to account. It looks like they are pushing ahead with this and that is it.

I have received emails and queries on the issue of health and safety on piers, including in regard to hygiene, toilet facilities or the limited space. Infrastructure investment is needed in some of our smaller piers. These are big issues and they have to be resolved.

I do not often agree with some contributors. We have lost several months and I believe we are playing catch-up on this issue. The representative associations need to be respected and communicated with. They need to be told exactly what is expected of every fish producer.

The SFPA is communicating and engaging closely on a daily basis with fishers and processors in respect of the management of the current situation. The Deputy should note that until such time as the EU Commission revoked the control plan, there was no such decision. That meant the SFPA had to respond and the impact that had in respect of fishers on the ground is relevant. Until such time as the Commission made a decision, there was nothing on which to consult. Once the decision was communicated, the SFPA was in communication with the sector on that. The authority has a challenging statutory role to carry out. It is a difficult role but one for which it is significantly resourced. It carries out that role within its the legal responsibilities.

The authority reports to the Oireachtas in terms of accountability. The joint committee had a meeting with authority officials earlier this week in line with its role and there was significant engagement on this issue. Several statutory agencies report directly to Oireachtas committees and this is the case with the SFPA.

There was a question about health and safety. The authority has a dual role that includes enforcement of EU regulations and the health certification and monitoring of fish on the processing side. These are the roles of the authority. There is no doubt that this poses challenges given the new situation. Nevertheless, the SFPA carries out both these roles and is in a position to manage this to the best extent possible.

I made a point earlier relating to the task force and the important role it is carrying out. My thanks go to the many people who are contributing to it and the many members of the public and public representatives who made submissions. During the past two weeks I have been holding a series of virtual town hall meetings. This has involved covering the entire coast piece by piece, meeting fishers, all those employed in the marine sector and all those with an interest or stake in coastal communities. The intention is to talk directly, discuss these issues and hear about the views, challenges and opportunities and how we can make the most of our fishing sector and coastal resource in the years ahead. Several committee members have joined in those town hall meetings. Anyone and everyone who joins in and wants to make a contribution is being accommodated. It has been a productive and constructive engagement. Because of the pandemic I have not had the same opportunity to be at piers and harbours as I normally might as Minister, yet I am keen to listen, engage and be influenced by stakeholders in our marine sector and coastal communities as well as those who depend on the sector and wish to see it grow and be fully supported in the years ahead. The town hall engagement is important in that regard. I encourage the Deputy, if we have not reached his county yet, to advertise this process through his social media channels and encourage people to attend. It has proved to be a useful engagement.

I was having trouble with my computer earlier. I think Deputy Verona Murphy brought up the issue of penalty points not applying to a third country outside the EU. This would have applied to the UK since 1 January. Let us suppose there are two drivers on the same road. One is subject to the law and the other is not. How is that fair? How is that a level playing field? I am not sure whether the Minister answered that. Like Deputy Murphy, I was having some technical troubles. Can the Minister go over that point again, please?

They have not applied to us either up until now because we still do not have a master's penalty points system. The penalty points system for licence holders has only been in place since last August. Until last August, Ireland was the only member state that did not have a penalty points system for licence holders. As of now, we are the only member state that does not have a penalty point system for masters.

The UK had such a system but the penalty points system only applies to member states. All other fishery control rules and regulations apply to everyone within our waters. Any breaches of regulations at the moment are subject to penalties and potentially prosecutions. That will continue to be the case for non-EU vessels. The penalty points system is an EU-wide Common Fisheries Policy system. It would make more sense if there can be agreement with the UK on a common approach just as there is among other member states. As we know, the UK has left the European Union at this stage. The matter will have to be explored directly with the UK in terms of the potential for that in future. As it stands, it is an EU-wide requirement and will apply to all member state vessels.

What are the chances of the UK Government agreeing to that? UK vessels face advantage over Irish and European vessels if they are not playing to the same rules, for the want of a better term.

The rules apply to everyone.

The penalties only apply to EU vessels.

The penalty points system is separate from the legal sanctions and penalties in place at the moment. These legal sanctions and penalties will continue to be in place for everyone, including member state vessels and non-member state vessels. The legal sanctions will continue to be in place but this will be a new system separate to the legal process. It is not a criminal system but one that deals with the potential for someone to have a licence and to be a master of a vessel and to run that vessel in compliance with the law and regulations. In cases where those law or regulations are breached it is provided for penalty points to be applied to the master's licence in the same way as penalty points would be applied to a driver's licence on the road. In cases where there are consistent, persistent and repetitive breaches of the regulations, a master subject to this legislation can accumulate penalty points. Where a master accumulates up to 90 penalty points, the master will be debarred from being a master and from being on the European register of masters after that point. Where there is one infringement but no more infringements for three years, then the penalty points that went with the infringement lapse. If a master continues within a three-year period to accrue further penalty points, the master will build up to the stage where it will impact on the licence. That is separate to the legal, penal, fines and court systems that apply separately to anyone who breaches fisheries regulations.

Deputy Collins, your hand is up. Do you wish to come in?

No. I will take my hand down.

I do not seen anybody else indicting to get in.

Before we finish, I would like to thank the Chair and the members for their prompt consideration and the time they have dedicated to this legislation. It is important legislation because we are in infringement proceedings with the European Commission at the moment in relation to it. Funding has been suspended as a result of not being compliant with it. I thank the members for recognising the urgency to move on with this and for considering the Bill. I thank everybody for their time and attention and I look forward to the pre-legislative report from the committee members. I thank the Chair for his commitment, time and oversight of this.

On behalf of the committee, I thank the Minister and his officials for engaging with us once again on this important legislation. We will have a private meeting on Monday morning and we will prepare our pre-legislative scrutiny report at that meeting. That concludes our proceedings for today.

Amendments to the committee's draft submission on the climate action plan were meant to be in by noon today, but if members wish to propose any amendments to it, the secretariat will take them in the early afternoon. However, submissions have to be in today. The committee is adjourned until 9 a.m. on Monday, 17 May 2021 for a private meeting.

The joint committee adjourned at 2.15 p.m. until 3.30 p.m. on Tuesday, 18 May 2021.