Although at the moment I hold the portfolio of Tourism and Transport, I hope within a few days to be dealing with neither tourism nor transport. When the necessary orders can be made I hope I will be the Minister for Energy. I preface my remarks by saying that, because it will be understood by the House that I am not completely familiar with all the details of this measure.
This Bill is a straightforward enabling measure. The provisions of the Bill relate to the standards of competency of merchant shipping personnel and the manning level of ships and related matters. The requirement that persons acting in certain capacities on board certain ships must hold certificates of competency is, in origin and in essence, a safety requirement. An insufficiency of competent personnel on board a ship might imperil the safety of the ship, its crew, passengers and cargo. The existing statutory requirements governing the certification of seamen on board Irish ships and on foreign ships carrying passengers between places in the State have their basis in the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, as amended by the Act of 1906. These provisions provide, in the case of officers, for a regime of masters, mates and engineers. The provisions in question are quite old, dating back to the Victorian era. They were made at a time when maritime, industrial and international conditions were very different from those obtaining today.
Although they have served us well, it has become evident in recent years that the existing legislative provisions relating, in particular, to the certification of ships' officers required updating to reflect changes in ship design, equipment and operation and to enable the merchant shipping industry to keep pace with modern developments. The aim and tendency of the modern shipping industry are to have larger ships with more automation and smaller, more adaptable and more highly trained crews. The maritime authorities of most mainland European countries have in recent years altered the manning requirements of their national fleets, thus giving them a competitive economic edge over the Irish and, indeed, the British merchant shipping industry. This has been recognised in the findings of two committees of inquiry into aspects of the British shipping industry, to wit the Pearson Report of 1967 and the Rochdale Report of 1970.
The British authorities have already made arrangements for the introduction of a new updated certification structure for merchant shipping officers under regulations made in 1977 and 1978. The new UK regulations will become compulsory from 1 September 1981. In the meantime the British authorities are operating a dual certificate system with the old certificates under the 1894 Act and the equivalent new certificates being awarded to successful candidates.
There are reciprocal arrangements in force between Ireland and a number of Commonwealth countries which provide for the mutual recognition of certificates of competency issued to merchant shipping personnel. The countries involved are Britain, Australia, India, Hong Kong, Singapore, Canada and New Zealand. These reciprocal recognition arrangements provide considerable employment opportunities for Irish merchant shipping officers, particularly in the British merchant fleet. Having regard to the small Irish merchant fleet, it is desirable that these employment opportunities should continue to be available. This requires the the reciprocal recognition of Irish certificates of competency by Britain should continue. To achieve this it is necessary to move in concert with developments in Britain and, therefore, enabling legislation on the lines proposed in this Bill is required without delay to facilitate the introduction here of a new system of certificates of competency with whatever adaptations may be appropriate to Irish conditions.
This Bill empowers the Minister for Tourism and Transport to specify, by regulations, the standards of competency to be attained and other conditions to be satisfied by shipping personnel; to prescribe the number of qualified officers which a ship must carry; and to make provision for the conduct of examinations and for the issue of certificates of competency. It is proposed to make the necessary regulations as soon as possible after the passage of the Bill. The remaining provisions of the Bill cover such matters as expenses, exemptions, offences, penalties, repeals and inquiries into a seaman's conduct.
Associated with the revised structure of certificates of competency, the British authorities have also re-defined the "trading areas" which govern the manning complement of British ships. The Merchant Shipping Act, 1894 provides for "foreign-going ships" and "home-trade ships". This is also the law at present in the case of Irish ships. However, under regulations made in 1977, the British authorities have established three trading areas for ships, that is a near continental trading area, a middle trading area and an unlimited trading area. It is intended in the proposed new regulations to re-define the trading areas governed by the 1894 Act as they apply to Irish-registered ships. While the re-defined areas will probably follow fairly closely the British precedent, the matter is being examined and discussions have been taking place with the Irish merchant shipping industry with a view to meeting as far as possible any special requirements of the industry.
The shipping industry here—through the medium of the Irish Chamber of Shipping—has already submitted useful comments to my Department on certain aspects of the proposals and these will be taken into account in making the new regulations. The question was raised in the Dáil whether the unions would also be involved in the consultations and my predecessor indicated that he was favourably disposed in that regard. I should make clear that this Bill is a safety-oriented measure. The regulations to be made under the Bill will not deal with the terms or conditions of service of seamen as such, but will be directed initially at the standards of competency and certification of merchant shipping officers, and matters connected therewith. On that basis and on the understanding that the Minister must be the final arbiter in matters of safety at sea, consideration will be given to views from any parties affected by the proposals or with a legitimate interest in them.
The law governing merchant shipping here is extensive and complex. It is, in addition, based on legislation which in many cases goes back a long time. My Department have been endeavouring to up-date and modify the various enactments involved, but, as Senators will appreciate, this is a slow process in terms of the complexity of the task involved and the resources it demands. The present statutory powers governing the provision of properly certificated merchant shipping personnel have been in existence for a very long time. They have outlived their usefulness in various respects and revision is necessary. The present Bill will enable this objective to be achieved and as such represents a further important step in the process of updating our merchant shipping legislation.
The Bill will enable us to move into line with international practice especially in the UK and it will also facilitate the preservation of the reciprocity arrangements I have mentioned in relation to the recognition of certificates of competency. It will, therfore, provide a basis for the continued development of the Irish merchant shipping industry. I am happy, therefore, to recommend the Bill to the House.