This Bill is a very important one, which provides for two major elements of my strategy to enhance safety standards throughout the seafaring community. The Bill has four separate strands: one, the enactment of a new legislative regime to regulate marine casualty investigation; two, provision for an amendment to the Merchant Shipping Act, 1992, to enable the Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources to provide a legislative framework to regulate the use of recreational craft, including jet skis and fast power craft; three, provision for a technical amendment to the Sea Pollution Act, 1991, which provides clarification on the definition of maritime causalities in that Act; and four, provision to allow the Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources to advance moneys for the purposes of marine and natural resource based tourism and heritage projects.
I intend dealing with each strand separately. The first of these will see a major improvement in the law governing the investigation of marine casualties in Ireland. To this end, the primary purpose of this Bill is to provide for the enactment of a new legislative regime to regulate the entire area of maritime casualty investigation to replace the current statutory system, which was established over a century ago in the provisions of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894.
Specifically it will establish an independent marine casualty investigation board with enhanced powers to investigate marine casualties and provide for procedural aspects relating to the operation of the board; place a requirement on owners, charterers, masters and other specified persons to report the occurrence of a marine casualty; provide for the appointment of marine casualty investigators with statutory powers by the board to investigate marine casualties in Irish waters and marine casualties involving Irish vessels wherever they occur for the purpose of establishing the cause of the casualty and to make recommendations on avoidance of similar casualties; ensure that all reports into casualties will be published within a specified timeframe – normally within nine months from the occurrence of the marine casualty; provide for the establishment, where necessary and following consultation with the board, of a tribunal of inquiry into a marine casualty; and provide powers to allow the testing for intoxicants in the aftermath of a marine casualty.
Coming as I do from a coastal county, I am only too well aware that the maritime area can sometimes be a dangerous one, and the investigation of accidents is an important necessity that must have regard to delicate and very sensitive issues from human, legal and technical perspectives. The existing statutory basis for investigating marine casualties is contained in the relevant provisions of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1894. While this Act allows for the appointment of a person to carry out an investigation and to report to me, as Minister, on the findings of the investigation, it does not provide a statutory requirement for a report of the investigation to be published.
Concerns have been expressed within the maritime community and by the public in general about the way in which marine accidents are investigated by my Department. These concerns were first raised as far back as 1992 when my Department identified and acknowledged the major gap that existed between what the current system provides and what the public expect, particularly when it comes to the publication of reports. It was clear even then that the carrying out of casualty investigations behind closed doors and non-publication of reports was proving to be unacceptable. This view has been strengthened by experience since then, which has shown that an enhanced statutory basis is essential to ensure fair and timely publication of marine casualty reports.
Despite endeavouring since 1992 to conduct investigations into marine casualties in a more open manner, my Department has continued to encounter difficulties regarding the publication of reports and progress in having marine casualty reports published has been slower than I would like. I am particularly aware of the disappointment and upset which bereaved families have experienced as a result of the delays occurring in the publication of reports and I fully appreciate these delays are a cause of great concern to them.
It was against this background that the importance of tackling this issue was addressed by my Department in November 1996 when a high level review group was established to examine the existing policy, procedures and legislative framework for maritime casualty investigation in Ireland and to make recommendations.
The policy review group was chaired by Mr. Vincent Power, solicitor and partner in A&L Goodbody, Solicitors, and the membership included representatives of my Department, including the Marine Survey Office and the Irish Marine Emergency Service, as well as persons with relevant knowledge and experience in accident investigation and from the legal and maritime professions.
The policy aim underpinning the review was to put in place a modern casualty investigation system for Ireland, in accordance with highest international practice, which would provide greater clarity as to when such investigations should be held, how they should be conducted and as to what their role and scope should be. It was also intended that the policy would meet the needs and expectations of the various interested parties in relation to casualty investigations.
Given that the task set for the review group was nothing less than a fundamental overhaul of the Irish marine casualty investigation system, it was, therefore, essential that the wide range of complex, varied and sensitive issues involved receive the fullest and most comprehensive consideration.
The review group met frequently over a period of 18 months or so and also met with around 50 interested parties, including representatives of various bereaved families, interested organisations and relevant Government agencies in Ireland and abroad. The group also examined the marine casualty investigation systems in various other countries, most notably those in Europe and in Australia, Canada, the US and New Zealand. The policy review group examined the problems encountered in carrying out previous casualty investigations, and lessons learned, with a view to ensuring that the Department's procedures particularly concerning communication with bereaved families, the industry, media and other State agencies should become more sensitive, clear and useful.
The policy review group concluded its work in June 1998 and its report was published in September that year. In its report, the review group made 39 recommendations to improve the system of casualty investigations in Ireland. The key recommendations were the establishment of an independent marine casualty investigation board with enhanced powers to investigate marine casualties in Ireland, the enactment of a new legislative and procedural regime to regulate the entire area of marine casualty investigation to replace the system established in 1894 and that all reports into casualties should be published within a specified timeframe.
I am confident the review group, in its work, has helped us to identify a new system of investigation which is in accordance with the highest international practice and which will resolve the current difficulties regarding the publication of reports and raising of expectations, as well as legal difficulties about whether reports can be published. I am confident that this new system should ensure that it will be clear to all what types of casualties will be investigated, when an investigations are necessary, who will conduct them and that a report of the investigation will be published within a specified timeframe.
The number of tragedies in recent years, particularly involving fishing vessels, is a major concern to us all. It is important that the causes of any such future tragedy be determined and a report published quickly, so that the lessons to be learned will have maximum effect. It is for this reason that I consider there is an urgent need to establish the marine casualty investigation board as a specific part of my strategy to enhance safety standards throughout the seafaring community. In overall safety terms, the establishment of this board should mean that lessons learned from the investigation of a casualty will be disseminated more quickly and the needs of all interested parties will also be met without unnecessary delay.
I wish to deal with the main provisions in the Bill. First and foremost, the Bill provides for the establishment of a legally independent marine casualty investigation board as recommended by the policy review group. The board will comprise three persons appointed by me, as Minister, as well as the chief surveyor of the Marine Survey Office and the Secretary General of my Department, or his or her nominee – in total a board of five persons. The board will, therefore, have a majority of members from outside the Department and the Bill requires that the chairperson and deputy chairperson be appointed by the Minister from the three members appointed from outside. The model for the composition and independence of the board follows closely on the recommendation of the policy review group which came to the conclusion, in the Irish context, that it was neither practical nor appropriate to establish a system whereby investigators and sur veyors would be entirely separate from the Department.
However, I recognise that there may be circumstances where it may be more appropriate, or even desirable in the interests of promoting a more open approach, for an investigation to be carried out by persons from outside the Department. In this regard, the Bill also makes provision for the engagement by the board of consultants, advisers and investigators for marine casualties as necessary so as to ensure that the proper expertise will be available and will be utilised by the board when investigating casualties where particular circumstances would warrant such consideration.
The Bill provides for the investigation of marine casualties by the marine casualty investigation board and for the appointment of investigators by the board to undertake investigations of marine casualties on its behalf. The Bill also gives investigators a comprehensive set of specific powers to conduct investigations and provides penalties for persons who fail to provide information or records to the investigator. These powers, many of which were recommended by the policy review group and which are now being provided for, are broadly in line with those available to marine casualty investigators in other countries and in most cases are similar to powers available to inspectors carrying out investigations into aviation accidents in Ireland.
While some of the powers provided for in the Bill, such as the testing for intoxicants in the aftermath of a marine casualty, were not previously available under the regulatory regime for marine casualty investigation in this country, I believe that they are fair, reasonable and warranted to ensure that a full and comprehensive investigation can be carried out into any marine casualty that occurs.
The policy review group strongly indicated in its report that the sole purpose of marine casualty investigations should be to determine the cause of the casualty so as to help prevent the recurrence of similar casualties. The group further recommended that the purpose of an investigation should not be to apportion blame or liability and both of these principles are reflected in the provisions of the Bill. In this regard, I accept the group's recommendation that marine casualty investigators should investigate the facts of a marine casualty and let others, such as the courts or disciplinary tribunals, establish blame and sanction fault where appropriate.
One of the most important elements of casualty investigation is the need for the relevant authorities to be notified as soon as possible of such casualties when they occur. The Bill provides clear rules on when, to whom and by whom casualties should be reported. It also sets out requirements on owners, masters and other specified persons to report the occurrence of a marine casualty immediately they are aware that a marine casualty has occurred or commenced, or as soon as practical thereafter. This will enable the investigation board to commence its inquiries without any unnecessary delay and will improve the efficiency of an investigation as investigators will be able to set about gathering evidence while it is still fresh and available.
The Bill also provides clear terms for the publication of reports into marine casualties. In particular, it sets out a statutory target of nine months – from the reporting of a casualty – for the publication of a report and that a report should contain all relevant findings of the investigation, indicate the causes or probable causes, if established, of the marine casualty, and outline any recommendations that the board considers to be warranted and feasible for the avoidance of similar marine casualties. It also makes provision for the publication of interim reports where a report cannot be completed within the nine months, or at any time that the board considers it expedient.
Senators will agree that the timeframes for publication specified in the Bill will lead to a huge improvement over the current situation where it can take a number of years before a report into a casualty is published. This situation is unacceptable to me, as I am sure it is to many of those whose lives and families have been touched by marine tragedies and who have had their pain compounded by delays in learning of the circumstances of such tragedies. The completion of an investigation and publication of a report in as short a time as possible will play a vital role in meeting the needs of all those with an interest in an investigation and in the wider sense will help to instil greater public confidence in the overall investigation process.
In the past 18 months, my Department has published a number of reports of marine casualty investigations and in doing so has complied with the principles of natural justice whereby any person whose reputation might be affected by issues raised in a report has been given an opportunity in advance of publication to address these issues and to have their comments included in the published report. These natural justice procedures are much strengthened in the Bill which provides that such persons should be given confidential sight of the draft report and a right of reply to be included in an appendix to the published report, if that person so wishes.
There are a number of investigations which are ongoing in my Department and a number of other reports which are being processed for publication in consultation with the Attorney General's office. The Bill provides for the marine casualty investigation board to complete any investigations which are still outstanding at the time that the board may be established. This will ensure not only that reports of these investigations will be published as promised, but also that there will be no gaps in terms of publication between the system now in place and the new regulatory system which will replace it.
The second major element of the Bill is the provision for an amendment to the Merchant Shipping Act, 1992, to enable the Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources to provide a legislative framework to regulate the use of recreational craft, including jet skis and fast power craft, as recommended in the final report of the action group on small powered recreational craft, which I published recently. Section 20 of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1992, enables the Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources to make, by way of regulations, provisions for the safety of pleasure craft and their occupants. It was under this section that the Merchant Shipping (Jet Skis and Fast Power Boat) Regulations, 1992, were introduced to enable local authorities, regional fisheries boards, harbour authorities and the Commissioners of Public Works to propose to the Department of the Marine and Natural Resources that areas within, or in the seas adjoining, their jurisdiction be designated as unsuitable for the operation of these craft in the interests of the safety of pleasure craft and their occupants.
However, the Office of the Attorney General has advised that the regulations are now considered to be legally unsound and do not provide the scope of what most local authority proposals seek to achieve. As a result, further processing of designation proposals had to be suspended by my Department. In addition, because of the limitations in the provisions of the Merchant Shipping Act, 1992, the measures are only available for the protection of pleasure craft and their occupants and do not extend to the protection of swimmers, bathers or the natural environment as these matters would be beyond the scope of the powers of the Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources.
The Government has been conscious of the widespread concerns expressed by many people about the safe use of recreational craft for personal purposes and, in particular, the reports of indiscriminate and irresponsible use of jet skis and fast power craft by a small number of individuals. Some limited action had been taken on a number of fronts to address these widespread concerns, including good work on zoning undertaken by a number of coastal local authorities, namely Galway, Fingal and Dún Laoghaire/Rathdown. However, in view of the growing public concern, an initiative was taken in August 1999 to establish a broadly representative action group to address this important matter, especially in light of a number of serious accidents and, indeed, fatalities involving jet skis and fast craft.
Following the tragic accident off Dunany Point, County Louth, last year where four persons, including two children, tragically lost their lives, Government approval was secured to include the drawing up of a safety policy for small powered leisure craft within the terms of reference of the action group. The central aim in setting up this action group was to put in place policies and practical measures to protect the safety of all water users in the context of a comprehensive safety regime for recreational craft generally.
My basic aim in relation to fast water craft and jet skis is to stop irresponsible behaviour by a small number of users, to protect the safety of other water users and to end the reported severe nuisance and distress being caused in certain locations and in traditional bathing, boating and angling areas. The action group was asked to carry out a comprehensive review of the safe use of personal recreational water craft and to consider measures which will be effective, sensible and enforceable and also which will be instrumental in introducing a shift in the culture towards safety as the overriding consideration. This they have done in their final report.
An important series of seminars on personal recreational watercraft and on commercial craft used in the marine tourism and leisure sector was organised late last year by the Marine Institute as part of its study of the existing safety regime for the marine leisure industry. These proved to be timely and relevant as they played an important role at an initial phase in the consultative process undertaken by the action group on small powered recreational craft. This consultative process formed a key element in the work of the action group and has been absolutely vital in ensuring that a broad spectrum of views from interested parties can be gathered to enable the informing of a genuine safety policy with regard to personal recreational watercraft.
I have already publicly welcomed the general thrust and content of the final report and, in particular, the conclusion that there is a strong case to support and extend, as the primary public policy response to these issues, the use of local by-laws to regulate the use of recreational craft, including jet skis and fast power craft; to construct a complementary national system to put in place a range of conditions governing the use of such craft, applicable to all locations and circumstances; and to put in place measures and capacities which will persuade and allow users of such crafts to attain levels of competence and training which are necessary to deliver responsible use of those craft.
The amendment to the Merchant Shipping Act, 1992, provided for in this Bill, has been designed to provide the legislative framework as recommended by the action group. The draft, set out in the original published Bill, was examined by the action group and suggestions made to improve the text. As a result the text was strengthened at Committee Stage in Dáil Éireann to reflect more accurately the findings and recommendations of the action group. In particular, the text has been amended to reflect the fact that the term "recreational craft" as used by the action group covers both pleasure craft, that is, non-commercial vessels, and passenger boats, which are defined as commercial vessels carrying 12 or fewer persons in the original 1992 Act. These two types of vessels are treated separately under that Act and thus many of the changes now being pro posed have been replicated under their respective headings to ensure a consistent approach.
As a result of the powers being laid down in this Bill, I as Minister will be empowered to regulate for the safety of recreational craft, including jet skis and fast power craft, their occupants and, most significantly, other persons and property from injury or damage caused by or resulting from the use of recreational craft. The amendment in the Bill also enables me, as Minister, to provide local authorities and bodies with the power to introduce by-laws to control the use of such craft in areas under their jurisdiction and to appoint authorised officers for the purpose of enforcing these by-laws.
In the wider context, I note with great interest the action group's agreement on the paramount need to ensure the safety on the water of children and young people, particularly as they are becoming more involved in water-based activities. I especially welcome the recommendations which they have made in relation to the wearing of appropriate lifejackets, the minimum age under which they should not be allowed to operate fast craft and the need to view this in the context of an overall appreciation of water safety.
Following on the enactment of this legislation, I hope to see the speedy introduction of implementing regulations based on the recommendations of the action group's final report. I assure the House that I will do all in my power to see that implementation occurs without delay. These regulations, allied to the recently launched Year 2000 Safety on the Water campaign, will contribute to an increase in safety in the water-based leisure sector and a resultant decrease in the emergency calls received by the emergency services in future. We all have a joint interest in developing and promoting the safe use of the marine and inland waterway resources in Ireland. In particular, we each owe a duty of care to ensure that our waters are made safe for the enjoyment of all. I look forward to our continuing to work together to achieve the highest safety standards possible.
The third and smallest strand of the Bill is the inclusion of an amendment to the Sea Pollution Act, 1991, which provides clarification on the definition of maritime casualties in that Act. This technical amendment has been included on the advice of the Attorney General to reflect greater clarity in the legal drafting of this definition and does not materially alter the substance of the 1991 Act.
The fourth and final part of the Bill concerns provision for the Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources to make advances for marine and natural resource based tourism and heritage projects. On 22 February 2000, the Government agreed the funding of the Dunbrody famine ship project to completion, subject to a number of conditions. However, doubts were raised by the Attorney General's office regarding the powers of the Minister to make grants or loans for this or similar purposes. A similar situation has arisen with regard to the future expenditure of moneys already allocated to natural resource heritage projects, and possibly to moneys already allocated to marine-based tourism projects under the national development plan, where a total of £20 million has been allocated over the period of the plan. In order to clarify the position and to ensure that any lingering doubts are removed, this amendment was introduced at Committee Stage in Dáil Éireann and accepted by that committee.
This legislation is vital to establish a new, open and more modern legislative regime to regulate the entire area of marine casualty investigation in Ireland as we enter the new millennium; to enact the legislative framework which will allow for the Minister for the Marine and Natural Resources, as the appropriate national authority, to make provisions for the purpose of ensuring the safety of all recreational craft, the occupants of recreational craft and any other persons or property from injury, damage and disturbance arising out of the use of recreational craft, with the emphasis on personal watercraft and fast power craft in the first instance; and to clarify the position regarding payment of advances for marine and natural resource based tourism and heritage projects.
I wish to emphasis what I said in regard to safety. From my short experience since I became Minister, there is no doubt that no matter what legislation we put in place and efforts we make, the first responsibility of people is their safety. It is clear from the information we receive from the coastguard and rescue services that people are prepared to take risks and be careless and irresponsible with their lives. I appeal to people, during this summer, to be especially careful and not to take the kind of silly risks we see being taken every day. There are many injuries and lives are being lost because people are careless and are not prepared to look after their safety. I appeal to people to be careful about their safety. I commend the Bill to the House.