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Seanad Éireann debate -
Thursday, 13 Dec 1979

Vol. 93 No. 6

Merchant Shipping (Certification of Seamen) Bill, 1979: Second Stage.

Question proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

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.

I speak on behalf of this side of the House in relation to this Merchant Shipping Bill, to welcome the Minister. We are honoured by his presence here this evening. We wish him well as Minister for Energy when he assumes that portfolio in a few days time. He started his speech by veering away from merchant shipping and talking about his new portfolio and I ask to be allowed to digress for simply two minutes in relation to energy. I hope the Minister in assuming his energy portfolio before he starts high flying in the relevance of oil, biomass or nuclear energy and all these other areas will get back to taking a fundamental look at the bogs of this country.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach

Senator, with respect, I want you to make the point.

I am really speaking in the vein the Minister adopted in the beginning. We sometimes question his judgment but we do not doubt his energy and he will be an energetic Minister for Energy.

This Bill is uncontroversial. There is not a single contentious note in it that I can detect. As the Minister stated, it is an enabling measure updating legislation of the Victorian era and thus amending legislation in relation to the original Acts of 1894 to 1906, and much water has gone under the bridge since then.

In general terms, the one point which seems to strike me about this Bill is the extent to which it is a replica of British legislation. It is another reflection of the extent to which this State, despite its freedom, has modelled so many of its institutions of Government on what has been happening in that other island. Apparently reciprocal recognition is necessary in Britain of Irish certificates of competency, which makes this new legislation necessary. New United Kingdom regulations are coming into force in September 1981 in relation to British certification of shipping officers. It is, of course, very sensible legislation which has to be updated. Having looked at some of the horrors that have taken place at sea in the history of man—not just in this century—anything that can be done to introduce safety measures is, and has to be, supported. This will allow the Minister to specify the standards of competency to be attained by personnel, to prescribe the number of officers which a ship must carry and so on. There have been many accidents where lives were lost through inadequacy both of competence and of senior personnel on board merchant ships. There has been a tremendous improvement in the conditions of men working at sea who had worked as slaves in the past century and in the early part of this century.

In the debate which took place in the Dáil on this issue, the only serious matters raised by the Members who spoke related to section 2 which deals with ships plying within this State or from this State. The point was made by a number of speakers about the position of safety in merchant vessels relating to ships which come to this country from other countries. Under section 2 there are quite stringent regulations relating to ships working entirely within the State plying around the coasts of this country, or, alternatively, based in the country and sailing from this to other countries. There is a serious problem where ships come from outside. The point was made by the Minister in that debate—which, of course, is acceptable—that ships coming from outside are governed by international regulations and there is no question of Irish legislation being introduced to control that position. Whilst these ships are governed by international regulations, implementing these regulations is infinitely more difficult most times than is the implementation of national legislation.

There is a very serious problem in this area. I am on dangerous ground if I speak about the Whiddy disaster because the inquiry is taking place at this time, but there has been substantial evidence about that ship which is extremely disturbing and it illustrates a matter over which an Irish Government should have control. We should have control over ships berthed here in the interests of personnel on the ships, Irish personnel serving them, Irish dockworkers and customs officials. This is a very serious matter. The only saving point seems to be that in relation to this issue of ships coming from outside, whilst it is a matter for international authorities, the State apparently has the power under the 1894 Act to inspect such ships and to detain them in Irish ports where there are safety problems. This issue is sufficiently serious, in the light of what happened at Whiddy and in other circumstances. This is a power within which the Minister should exercise his functions without any apology to any non-nationals. If there are issues of safety where such ships are concerned that power to implement that section of the 1894 Act is a very useful measure which should be implemented.

Regarding safety at sea, one single factor is causing great disquiet here in so far as life-saving is concerned. On the west coast between Aranmore in Donegal and Kilronan on the Aran Islands there is not one single lifeboat on that huge stretch of very dangerous coastline of north Galway, north Connemara, the entire coast of Mayo, Sligo and much of the Donegal coastline. Reasons have been given in the past that it has been very difficult for this to be done. The Royal National Lifeboat Institution are subsidised to a considerable extent and it would cost a great deal of money. There is a gap in the overall structure of safety at sea, on this island. I would like to bring this matter to the attention of the Minister even though it is very wide of the scope of this Bill. As I said at the outset, there is not a contentious note in the Bill of which we are aware and for that reason we are supporting it.

I join in welcoming this Bill. This is necessary legislation and it is good to see some maritime legislation coming before this House. We have tended to neglect maritime affairs, particularly in peace-time, and to remember them only in times of crisis. This is a great pity because we are of course basically—whether we like it or not—a maritime nation. In times past Irish seamen were famous throughout Europe and throughout the world. It is a pity that nowadays so few Irish people are involved in shipping. I am delighted to see this Bill relating to the certification of seamen and helping to maintain standards. We often do not realise the difficult job the seamen have. It is a very necessary but unrewarding job and one which we should encourage just as we encourage shipping generally. Shipping earns a considerable amount of foreign currency for us and could earn a great deal more.

In this Bill we are particularly concerned with certificates of competency. There are many other aspects relating to seamen also. In this Bill we are endeavouring to stay in line with the United Kingdom regulations and other international regulations and to maintain uniformity with them. Our seamen are not in uniformity with seamen elsewhere in many other aspects such as tax benefits, for example. A seaman in the British Merchant Marine is eligible for very considerable tax benefits which our seamen are not eligible for. This puts our seamen at a very considerable disadvantage. I hope some day it will be possible to do something about this matter.

Equally well we are bringing in these regulations for certification of our seamen but, unfortunately, we have this relatively small number despite the fact that under OECD precepts importers to a country should normally be expected to carry something in the region of 40 per cent of the total imports to that country in ships belonging to the given country. Many other nations have other very large degrees of support for shipping which unfortunately we do not, as yet, have here. I hope that shortly we will have them.

We have, however, one very important asset in our shipping industry in that it has been a vital industry which has been remarkably free of the industrial strife which has characterised, unfortunately, many other areas of our world. One must pay tribute here both to the Irish Seamen's Union and to the management of Irish Shipping, of B & I, and of the private shipping interests which between them, have managed to secure a very harmonious relationship which is an example to us all in other industries and other affairs. I hope, however, that this Bill on the certification and standards of seamen is followed also by some form of uniform approach towards the training of seamen, which surely goes with the question of certification.

We have the unfortunate situation at present that those seamen who happen to be interested in the fishing industry go through one training channel, those who wish to join our Naval Service may well go through another and those who are interested in merchant shipping through a third. Surely it would not be beyond our resources to consider setting up a single nautical college in which all our youths who are interested in a maritime career can go through a common course of basic training and afterwards decide which branch of maritime affairs they wish to enter or, indeed, be free to enter the various aspects one after the other if they so wish. In fact, I understand at the moment one of our difficulties in expanding our naval service is because of the unfortunate lack of trained and suitable people. I am sure a nautical college would help to overcome these shortages. Here, one should pay tribute to the very high standard which has already been attained in the individual training schemes run by such companies as Irish Shipping. However, I am sure we could do a great deal more than this.

I join in the welcome for this Bill. It is very nice to see it coming along. It is an excellent and necessary Bill and I hope it is the forerunner of further Bills dealing with our merchant shipping and giving it the recognition, attention and expansion which it deserves.

I also welcome this Bill. It is a Bill which will help to give the deserved status to the merchant shipping service, and in particular to the employees in that service. For far too long we have been inclined to look down on the status of merchant shipping employees; perhaps there was something traditional or historical in this attitude. For far too long it has been regarded as being a somewhat casual service in which people just pick up a job on the sea for a couple of months and then are let go until another season. It is good to see a Bill like this which will give, by means of certification, a certain status to people who serve on the seas.

Of course, this legislation is not before its time. It is rather peculiar, to say the least, to look at the schedule in the Bill and see Enactments Repealed of as far back as 1894, 1906 and 1914. So, something needs to be done with regard to merchant shipping legislation. I hope this is only a forerunner, because I am certain that this Bill in itself does not contain all that needs to be done to enhance and improve the merchant shipping service.

I may be wrong, but are the fines a bit lenient? I notice fines of £5,000 and £500 in one section of this Bill. Considering the value of merchandise that can be carried on the seas these days and also the inherent risk resulting from accidents or negligence, the fines may, perhaps, be a bit light, but I am open to correction on that point. It is necessary that we should have the same standards as apply to the best of other maritime nations. Unfortunately, too many maritime nations do not give proper attention to efficiency on the seas. I would like to think that we would come closer to the best of nations in this regard. I hope that this legislation precedes future legislation, which will give further status to the merchant shipping service.

I add my voice to those of the other Senators in welcoming the measure. There are one or two points on which I should like to dwell: one is the manning level. Considerable problems have been created in the not too distant past in relation to the manning of vessels plying out of Dublin port. Vessels have been tied up because of deliberate effort by personnel aboard to have the ship short-handed by sickness or some other means of absenteeism. Vessels servicing lighthouses and other essential coastal areas have been caught up in this tangle. The whole question of industrial relations regarding manning levels must get immediate consideration. From that point of view, I am very glad to see that it has been included here.

There are many small companies here with personnel who may not have reached the required level. Will any financial assistance be given to these small companies who would not be in a position of their own to re-train personnel? The re-training of personnel is important, when a certain level of training is stipulated. The small company might need not alone training facilities but some financial assistance to ensure the desired level of competency which is necessary in order to ensure absolute safety. The up-dating of legislation is desirable, but we must ensure that the facilities will be there for people to reach the up-dated standards. Will the merchant shipping situation, as we know it at the moment, change with the coming into operation of a hovercraft service? Are there provisions in the Bill which cover the new technical advances involved in the hovercraft, which is, perhaps, something more than a ship? I hope, in whatever training facilities are available, that the hovercraft and the development situation in this field will be taken into consideration and covered in the Bill and provisions made to ensure that this area of technical development will be taken into consideration.

The question of the manning level is a disturbing factor, and many people are concerned about it at the moment, because of the disruption caused by service vessels not being able to meet requirements or give essential service to lighthouses out of the port. I hope that the Bill will relieve the situation, and ensure that people on service vessels, as distinct from those carrying passengers and cargo, are included.

First, I thank Senator Staunton for his good wishes and thank all the Senators who participated in the debate for their welcome for this Bill.

Senator Staunton complained that it seemed to be virtually a replica of British legislation and that this is a feature of much of the legislation introduced in this House. I would not disagree too violently with Senator Staunton's criticisms in that regard. Generally, though, there has been an improvement in the position in recent years. In this case perhaps there is a good deal more excuse for having regard to British legislation than in others, as I believe the Senator acknowledges by nodding his head. The considerable employment opportunities that are available abroad for Irish seamen make alignment between our legislation and that of Britain very desirable. Nevertheless, as I pointed out, while the basic pattern is the same there will be adaptation under the regulations to Irish conditions. In introducing the Second Stage, I outlined some areas where there may be changes.

With regard to Senator Conroy's point on the question of a common training course it will, of course, become necessary with the introduction of the new system of certification provided for in this Bill to have a fresh look at the overall position of nautical training and education, to see what improvements or modifications may be necessary in the light of modern conditions. Indeed, the point made by Senator Conroy about a common training course, in so far as that could be achieved, is certainly one of the matters that is being examined. I cannot say what the outcome will be, but I can tell the House that the Department of Tourism and Transport over the past year have had discussions on this matter with the industry in the context of this Bill and that further discussions in this regard are planned.

With regard to Senator Markey's point concerning the level of the penalties, these have been determined by reference to the level of fines for what are generally regarded as comparable type of offences. Of course, the penalties cover both companies who send vessels to sea without the proper complement and individual seamen who go to sea without proper certificates, or, indeed, who obtain, or try to obtain these by fraud or by otherwise misleading the examiners or the Ministers. It is difficult to say what level of penalty is too high or too low; I simply accept that the penalties provided in the Bill are reasonably comparable to those imposed under other legislation for somewhat similar offences.

With regard to the point raised by Senator Dowling concerning the manning levels, the Senator did refer to something which is a problem, but I cannot guarantee to him that this Bill will solve that problem. I would like to repeat, in regard to the regulations that will be made under this Bill, that the primary purpose is to secure safety at sea and manning levels arrived at and laid down under this Bill will be aimed at achieving that objective.

The use or abuse of those levels for industrial relations purposes is another matter and I am sure Senator Dowling knows better than any of us that the most neutral regulations can be used for purposes of that kind. The major objective under this Bill, in so far as these matters are concerned, is to secure the safety of life at sea.

I can assure Senator Dowling that hovercraft are covered by this Bill and the relevant regulations will apply to them as they would apply to any kind of seagoing vessel other than mainly vessels propelled by oars. Senators might like to know that our existing powers aimed at maintaining safety and preventing accidents and pollution incidents in the shipping area will be considerably strengthened in the future through EEC action, action which in one case has already been taken and in other cases is contemplated. The Community has already adopted a directive concerning minimum requirements for certain tankers entering or leaving Community ports and arrangements are being made to implement this. The Community is also at present considering a proposal to render mandatory procedures for ship inspections forming the subject of certain international resolutions on this topic, as well as a related proposal dealing with port State enforcement in the Community, by regular inspection of ships. The motive behind these proposals, and the tanker directive to which I have already referred and which has already been adopted, is to turn the Community into a zone in which port state enforcement will constitute an effective deterrent against the operation of substandard ships. I think that I have covered the major points raised by Senators in the debate.

Question put and agreed to.
Agreed to take remaining Stages today.