This is a necessary and important item of legislation. It is also particularly urgent for two reasons. First, there is an immediate need to give the Commissioners of Irish Lights the legal powers to secure financing facilities for a new vessel. Second, the enactment of certain provisions will trigger EU Commission approval for the implementation of two important support measures for the merchant shipping sector — the refund of employers' PRSI payments in respect of seagoing employees to key Irish ship operators and the introduction of a new personal income tax allowance for certain seafarers. I will deal with each of these matters in more detail in my outline of sections 3 and 5 of the Bill.
When I was before the Seanad dealing with the Merchant Shipping (Commissioners of Irish Lights) Bill, 1997, since enacted, I indicated to the then Senator Seán Ryan that I would be taking action to deal with outmoded provisions affecting merchant seamen in the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, and elsewhere. I am pleased to be before the House fulfilling in part that pledge with regard to certain legislation. As a wise Cork journalist put it, "Walking the plank is to become a thing of the past." The Bill is part of my effort to modernise the legislation dealing with our seamen and to respond to the changing requirements of our maritime sector.
I take a personal interest in underpinning our merchant shipping industry with appropriate legislation. This Bill not only repeals out of date 19th century penal sanctions for merchant seamen, but, importantly, increases penalties for breaches of safety regulations, allows EU nationals and corporate bodies to register ships in Ireland, provides limited special exemptions for certain classes of small passenger vessels and introduces a provision to provide a legal basis for the borrowings of the Commissioners of Irish Lights.
The Bill is not intended as a comprehensive effort to modernise shipping legislation. It repeals what would now be considered inappropriate, offensive and outdated penalties for certain behaviour by merchant seamen and introduces certain provisions into Irish law which are necessary immediately. I propose to outline the Bill's provisions in some detail, putting before the House the reasons for the amendments I have made to the Bill since its publication.
Section 1 repeals section 16 of the Conspiracy, and Protection of Property Act, 1875, thereby ensuring that seamen cannot be indicted for conspiracy in furtherance of a trade dispute. Despite the fact that such a provision might never be used, its existence on the Statute Book is clearly undesirable. The existence of the provision has been criticised by the International Labour Organisation and the Council of Europe.
Section 2 of the Bill removes the offence of desertion from the Statute Book by deleting a subsection from section 221 of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, and repealing sections 222, 224, 225 and 238 from that Act. As well as removing the offence of desertion and the 19th century penalties attaching to it, other general offences such as wilful disobedience and combining with others to disobey are also repealed. Section 2 updates the penalties for offences under the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, and under subsequent merchant shipping legislation, except where specific penalties apply. Examples of the types of offence involved would be breaches of section 428 of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, which requires a ship to be provided with lifesaving appliances such as lifeboats, life rafts and life buoys and breaches of collision regulations. The maximum fine on summary conviction is £100 at present and it is proposed to increase this to £1,500, which is the level generally applicable at present. The wording of section 680 of the 1894 Act is archaic and section 2 of the Bill includes a provision for its complete rewriting in terms which would appear in current legislation. The section as redrafted provides for prosecution on indictment instead of as a misdemeanour and includes a standard provision for offences by bodies corporate.
On Committee Stage in the Dáil I undertook to take legal advice on the consequences of repealing in full section 221 of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894, to remove not only the offence of desertion as the Bill proposes, but also that of absence without leave. I am aware that Senators may wonder why the provision is being retained. On the basis of legal advice from the Attorney General's office to the effect that the removal of an established system of penalties could have unforeseen and undesirable consequences if undertaken without proper consideration and full consultation with all relevant parties, I will leave the absence without leave offence on the Statute Book until such time as a more comprehensive revision of merchant shipping legislation can be undertaken. This Bill is focused primarily on matters requiring speedy attention and is not, therefore, a suitable vehicle for a comprehensive revision of maritime law.
Section 3 of the Bill provides for a matter which requires speedy attention. The European Court of Justice ruled in June 1997 that the operation of the Irish Ship Register infringed EU Treaty provisions. The Irish authorities' view was that the requirements of EU law were satisfied because all EU citizens and corporate bodies were entitled to enter the Irish Ship Register following incorporatisation in Ireland. However, the European Court of Justice ruled that the Irish register must be opened to direct access without the prior need to incorporate in Ireland. This legislation is, therefore, urgently needed so that we may comply with the court's judgment. However, I intend to seek Government approval as soon as practicable to further modernise the legislation dealing with the Irish Ship Register. This will, of course, be done in full consultation with all relevant interests.
Widening the nationality provisions in the Mercantile Marine Act, 1955, to enable all EU citizens and corporate bodies to have direct access to the Irish Ship Register will enable support measures for seafarers introduced by 1997 Social Welfare Regulations and the Finance Act, 1998, to be implemented. The Commission has already approved the wording used in section 3 of the Bill to bring the operation of the Irish Ship Register into conformity with EU Law. Any delay in the passage of this Bill will, by delaying the enactment of the provision dealing with the Irish Ship Register, postpone the repayment to certain Irish ship operators of refunds of PRSI paid by them in respect of seagoing employees. The implementation of this benefit will be worth over £2 million a year to these employers. Also dependent upon the passage into law of this section of the Bill is the provision of a new £5,000 personal income tax allowance for seafarers who work outside the State for at least 169 days in a tax year. This provision, for which I argued strongly, was introduced in this year's Finance Act. I am sure the House will agree that these benefits should be brought into operation without delay.
In section 4 I propose a number of amendments to the Merchant Shipping Act, 1992. This Act established a system for the licensing of boats carrying fewer than 12 passengers for reward and thus made such boats undergo a system of survey to ensure their suitability to transport passengers. However, the practical implementation of the provisions of the Act with regard to certain classes of boats has proved difficult. For example, I refer to boats which carry employees or inspectors from time to time as part of their work rather than "to or from their place of work", as defined in the 1992 Act, and to boats such as pilot boats where the personnel are experienced and trained in maritime matters. I propose to exempt such classes by regulation and subject to such conditions as will ensure there is no consequent reduction in safety.
Another class which lends itself to exemption, again under conditions as regards best practice in safety, are boats used in certain sporting activities where people are under instruction. One must accept that the problem here is one of interpretation and that a small dinghy, for example, cannot be subject to the same stability and lifesaving requirements applicable to large passenger boats as, for example, there is physically no room for the requisite equipment.
Many of the sporting activities to which I refer are conducted at adventure centres, and, while I accept that water sports constitute only some of a wide spectrum of activity sports conducted at such centres, I am nevertheless concerned that there should be a co-ordinated approach towards ensuring greater safety in all adventure sports, with particular reference to the monitoring and control of adventure centres which provide facilities for young people. I have in this regard recently taken up with my colleague, the Minister for Tourism, Sport and Recreation, the possible introduction of a system of mandatory regulation of adventure centres. A high level meeting between our two Departments will be held shortly to examine how this matter might be progressed.
In this section I am also making provision for exemptions, again by regulation, in certain exceptional circumstances, for classes of boats operating from inhabited islands where there is no regular service by a licensed boat. This provision addresses a social need for residents of islands where there is a small population. I see this measure as a pragmatic, temporary solution to problems encountered by inhabitants of small islands without a regular ferry service. However, as Minister with responsibility for safety of life at sea, I would not like to see this situation continuing for an indefinite period.
As a result of my concerns, I have recently asked my colleague with responsibility for the islands, the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands, to examine the situation with a view to providing a long-term solution to the problems of inadequate landing facilities, both on the inhabited island and at the appropriate mainland point of departure, and to ensuring that safe access to inhabited islands is not compromised by the absence of suitable facilities. Such infrastructural development would, in my view, serve to encourage the establishment of regularised passenger boat services to these islands.
While exemptions may not be an ideal solution, they are, nevertheless, necessary in certain circumstances. I assure Senators that these exemptions will only be applied as is the case with other exemptions already provided for, in limited situations and only where I and my Department are confident that they are appropriate.
Section 4 makes two further amendments to the 1992 Merchant Shipping Act to make it more workable. First, it enables ferry boats working in chains, which were excluded from the passenger boat and passenger ship provisions of that Act, to be brought into the system for survey and licensing and certification. These vessels use traction power based on land and cables or chains to draw themselves across narrow sections of waterway. Second, it allows the use of unlicensed boats to carry passengers in genuine emergencies where it is necessary to secure the safety of a vessel, safeguard life at sea or otherwise prevent a marine accident.
As I indicated earlier, section 5 is required in order that the Commissioners of Irish Lights may make financing arrangements for a new ship for which they have already placed a contract with a Dutch shipbuilding company. The vessel contract price is £15.6 million pounds sterling, or approximately IR£17.9 million. However, I am pleased that I managed to secure EU grant aid of a little over IR£1 million towards the cost of the vessel. I am very grateful to the European Commission and, in particular, Commissioner Neil Kinnock, for their assistance. The Commission has indicated that we can also apply next year for further EU funding which, if successful, would result in an additional grant of IR£675,000. In addition, due to the fact that the ship is to be built in Holland, the Dutch Government has agreed to pay a grant of IR£800,000 on delivery of the vessel. If these real and potential grants are taken into account the net cost of the ship would be approximately IR£15.4 million. If anyone would like me to negotiate major purchases for them we can proceed along the same lines.