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Seanad Éireann debate -
Thursday, 22 Nov 2001

Vol. 168 No. 15

Fisheries (Amendment) Bill, 2000 [ Seanad Bill amended by the Dáil ] : Report and Final Stages.

This is a Seanad Bill which has been amended by the Dáil. In accordance with Standing Order 103, it is deemed to have passed its First, Second and Third Stages in the Seanad and is placed on the Order Paper for Report Stage. On the question, "That the Bill be received for final consideration", the Minister may explain the purpose of the amendments made by the Dáil. This is looked upon as the Report of the Dáil amendments to the Seanad. The only matters, therefore, which may be discussed are the amendments made by the Dáil. For Senators' convenience, I have arranged for the printing and circulation of the amendments. Senators may speak only once on Report Stage.

Question proposed: "That the Bill be received for final consideration."

Is mian liom na leasaithe a rinne Dáil Éireann sa Bhille seo a mholadh don Teach seo.

Essentially, the Bill as passed by the Seanad last year ensures that the independent statutory Aquaculture Licences Appeals Board will automatically explain all decisions made by it after this Bill becomes law and, on request, past decisions also. The Bill clarifies inspection powers of the board and of any consultants or advisers appointed by it.

Since the Bill was passed by the Seanad last year, the Attorney General advised that the Aquaculture Licences Appeals Board could not recruit or employ staff directly. That could be a serious impediment to the effective and efficient operation of the board. I reviewed the statutory provisions for An Bord Pleanála on which the appeals board is modelled and sponsored a group of amendments to the Bill to allow the Aquaculture Licences Appeals Board to recruit and employ staff directly, subject to standard ministerial controls, as An Bord Pleanála can.

The principal amendment of that group is amendment No. 5, which inserted new sections 35A to D in the Fisheries (Amendment) Act, 1997, modelled on sections 120 to 123, inclusive, of the Planning and Development Act, 2000, for staff in An Bord Pleanála. Consequential amendments Nos. 6 to 13, inclusive, arise from amendment No. 5.

A review of the legislation for An Bord Pleanála also pointed to the need to mirror statutory provisions designed to avoid conflict of interest, by disqualifying a Member of the Dáil, Seanad, European Parliament or local authority from being the chairperson or member of the Aquaculture Licences Appeals Board at the same time. Amendments Nos. 2 to 4, inclusive, refer.

The opportunity was also taken to copperfasten licence fees determined administratively for licences granted for aquaculture purposes under legislation replaced by the comprehensive Fisheries (Amendment) Act, 1997. Amendments Nos. 1 and 14 refer.

The Attorney General's office has advised that express statutory provision as proposed is the only way to remove doubt about the validity of licence fees imposed administratively, that is other than by way of regulations provided for in section 15 of the Fisheries (Consolidation) Act, 1959, for fish culture licences or section 54 of the Fisheries Act, 1980, for aquaculture licences. Both sections 15 and 54 have been repealed as provided for in sections 5 and 4 respectively of the Fisheries (Amendment) Act, 1997.

In accordance with licence fee rates determined administratively in 1987, over £1.5 million in fees has been collected in respect of the licences concerned, with a further £600,000 or so due for payment during the remainder of their currency. Licence fees at the rates determined administratively in 1987 were agreed to by the licensees and therefore where the licences in question have some time yet to run before they expire, those licence fees at those rates will apply for the remainder of the licence period. The proposed statutory provision copperfastens that fees position.

There is no doubt about the validity of any fees imposed under the foreshore Acts in respect of foreshore licences granted for aquaculture purposes on State-owned foreshore. Those Acts do not require the making of regulations to impose licence fees. The Fisheries (Amendment) Act, 1997 made comprehensive new provision for new aquaculture licensing and replaced all previous aquaculture licensing legislation. It also expressly provided for the imposition of licence fees by ministerial regulations and such regulations were made in 1998. Those regulations provided for increased rates of licence fees in respect of licences granted under that Act or earlier ones renewed under that Act. Those regulations also provided for a new fee to be charged for applications to renew licences granted, as well as a new fee to be charged for applications for licences or reviews of licences, to take account of increased administrative costs.

Amendment No. 15 is a technical amendment to the collective citation of the Fisheries Acts in the last section of the Bill, so as to take account of enactment of the Fisheries (Amendment) Act, 2000 since this Bill was initiated in Seanad Éireann in June 2000.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I also welcome the conclusion of this Bill for a number of reasons. I see that all the amendments were agreed in the Dáil. The Bill is amended, rightly, to ensure that the licences appeals board will automatically explain all decisions made by it after the Bill becomes law. Every decision the appeals board makes in relation to the granting of licences should be accompanied by an explanation as to why the decision was made. The Bill also clarifies the inspection powers. A Bill that was with the House in the late 1990s gave us some concern in relation to the inspection powers of various boards or consultants acting on their behalf. This Bill goes some way to clarifying that and putting it on an even footing.

The Bill was also amended to disbar members of local authorities from participating on the board. This is frequently becoming the case in relation to a range of boards. On wonders why this is, because local authority members can bring much expertise, coming as they do from various walks of life. I disagree with this amendement. However, it was agreed in the Dáil and I do not want to hold up the passage of this Bill.

I welcome the other amendments and the Department and the fisheries board are to be complimented. They have done great work over the years. Mayo County Council has recently had difficulties with the North Western Fisheries Board in relation to planning. It has great concerns, as does the council, about planning issues and I hope that all boards and local authorities can work together because it is very important that the fisheries industry be put on a good footing. I welcome this Bill.

I welcome the Minister of State to the House, particularly as he is the one who, over the past few years, has pushed this area forward into working operation. I welcome the amendments made in the Dáil, in particular amendment No. 1 which allows the board to employ people. Since the Minister of State first got his hands on this there have been many changes and a plethora of objections to certain applications and to operations that had been granted permission. All kinds of objections have been raised recently. I am glad that staff will be available to the board to enable them to examine all aspects in relation to licences because we want to see openness, public consultation and the public view considered where reasonable.

I have to agree with some of Senator Burke's sentiments in relation to local authority members. There are a number of members I know who would bring much experience to this area. Many of them are from the local communities and know the local history and traditions that pertain to coastal areas. The major change here, apart from copperfastening the licensing structure, is that there has been a significant amount of money received in recent years and I hope that much of this money will be used to improve aquaculture.

The significant change implemented in the Dáil is to the powers of the inspectorate and the board in making decisions open to scrutiny. This is based on the same structure that applies in Bord Pleanála. There is one area that I have difficulty with in Bord Pleanála which is the system by which inspectors examine objections and appeals and furnish a report to the applicant or objectors. For a fee the public, the applicant or objector can get not just the decision but also a full copy of the inspector's report. This explains clearly the inspector's rationale. There is considerably more information there than in a normal application through the local authority. While it is possible to read the file in the local authority, it is not possible to understand the thinking of the person who made the decision because that remains in that person's head.

The reports of the inspectors from An Bord Pleanála that I have read have been very thorough and explanatory. On at least two occasions in the past four years I have seen inspectors' reports that have either gone with or against the planning authority's decision. The reasoning is very exact and it is easy to understand from where the inspector came. However, the board gave a decision totally contrary to the inspector's report. Nothing in the documentation clarifies why the board overruled the inspector's decision. That gives reason to believe that something underhand went on in the board's decision.

Knowing the landscape and the circumstances that pertain to both cases, I agreed totally with the inspector's report, which went with the local authority decision. Everybody with common sense saw the reasoning behind the inspector's report and the decision of the council in the first place. However, somewhere along the line somebody in the board or the board in general overruled that inspector's decision.

The situation here would not be as thorough. Will the employee of the appeals board that goes out to look at the case again review it as thoroughly as the inspector from An Bord Pleanála or will he or she basically look at the decision of the Minister and the documents that are on file? Maybe it does not apply here and it is not investigated thoroughly. I would like to see it done as thoroughly as An Bord Pleanála but maybe ultimately if the board reverses the inspector's decision, it should have to explain why it made that decision.

I hope we can pass this Bill. Aquaculture will be of huge benefit to many coastal communities in the future. I know the Government is anxious to get many aquaculture projects operational. Unfortunately, there are many objectors – some people feel they must object to everything. The Minister was in Donegal recently launching the CLAMS report and he is aware that there are significant difficulties. I have been at meetings of the Donegal county council fisheries and coastal committee and people have come in to make accusations. Many of the objectors have vested interests. Some areas are yet to be examined and we are at our infancy in this area. However, some of the objectors go overboard. With the effort the Minister and his officials are putting in, I know we will get it right.

I welcome the Minister to the House and I welcome the Bill. Aquaculture has been an extraordinarily important part of our economy over the past three decades. The improvements in licensing brought forward by the Minister are important. Licensing is important because improper development will certainly not be of benefit to anyone. Ireland is one of the countries that can benefit most from the huge demand for fish within the European Union. I recently heard that about one third of the fish consumed in the world is eaten in the European Union. Although this is hard to believe, apparently we are very big fish consumers. In view of the decrease in beef consumption, we should boost aquaculture.

Proper licensing is essential. While I understand Senator Bonner's concerns about objectors in some cases, I prefer to see them coming forward. It is preferable for things to be looked at properly because there may be very reasonable objections and in some areas, fish farms have been set up in unsuitable places.

Much more species of fish are now being farmed. Some pelagic and demersal fish that I never thought would be farmed are being brought forward. I am talking not only about mussel, oyster and scallop farms or even the huge salmon farms. There is a big increase in the numbers and type of farms setting up. We should not be too concerned about objectors because I expect the licensing authorities will deal with them very fairly.

When looking at aquaculture, we also depend on wild fish. Brown trout and wild salmon are particularly important to the tourism industry and they are fished in exactly the same places where most of the aquaculture occurs. We need to be sure they can co-exist and become symbiotic if possible.

As a doctor, I am aware of the public health aspect to this. We must ensure that fish farms are in suitable areas. A friend of mine working in public health dealt with a mussel farmer in the good old days, at least 20 years ago, and there was a serious problem regarding pollution of the mussels with e.coli. The legislation precluded them from sale on the domestic market, but there was a loophole, which allowed them to be exported. The farmer was extremely annoyed with the public health doctor who insisted that the mussels could not be exported to Paris. He felt he had a responsibility regardless of the legislation for avoiding an outbreak of gastroenteritis in Paris. I am glad those sorts of loopholes have long been closed.

However, it is important to remember that there are aspects other than economic ones such as public health. The Minister has made a great job of the Bill and I am sure it will be a great help to all those involved in the industry and living in these areas.

I thank Senators for their indulgence and their interesting remarks. As we are collecting fees in relation to two kinds of licences, those before the 1997 Act and those under the 1997 Act, to which the regulations apply, it is necessary that pre-1997 Act licence fees are legally secured.

The independent statutory Aquaculture Licence Appeals Board was established in June 1998 under the Fisheries (Amendment) Act, 1997, and comprises a chairperson, Conor Mag uire SC, and six ordinary members. Dr. Ann Quinn was appointed deputy chairperson on 12 November to fill a vacancy created by the resignation of Ms Berna Grist.

The Aquaculture Licence Appeals Board has dealt with a substantial caseload in a commendable way. To date it has determined appeals against 96 ministerial decisions, 94 to license and two to refuse to license aquaculture operations. The board only overturned three ministerial decisions, two to license and one to refuse a licence. Appeals against a further 25 ministerial decisions to license await determination by the board. Some 121 out of a total of 460 ministerial decisions were appealed. It is fairly clear that people are taking this appeals board seriously.

The appeals board came about because a particular application for a licence, which was granted by me, was appealed and the appeal determined against me. The offended person felt that he should have had access to the reasons for that decision by the appeals board. He could not get the decision but under this new legislation he will be provided with the reasons because this is to be applied retrospectively. The appeals board is working well but that was one weakness in it which we have now cleared up.

I know that what Senators Burke and Bonner have said has been much discussed at county council meetings and indeed by Members of the Dáil who feel they are being excluded from membership of the board because of membership of the Oireachtas, the European Parliament or county councils. It is also felt that because such people are accountable to the public and face re-election by the public from time to time, it might be unconstitutional to disbar such people from membership or chairmanship of the board. County councils are consultees and as such there could well be a conflict of interests. Consequently we felt that consultees should not sit on the board as they might have to deal with business discussed earlier at their county council meetings. It is solely for that reason that they are excluded. Having been a member of a county council for 23 years, I gained expertise and knowledge in this area. Nevertheless, being a consultee, I feel that were I to sit on such a board, I might be in conflict with the overall plan.

I acknowledge the fine work that all public representatives do. This is in no way to denigrate such work but to increase transparency and accountability. People accept that they would not want it said that a county councillor sat on the board while being a consultee. Above all, I want to ensure that when a decision is made no one can come back and point out a flaw. Members are aware of how much publicity a consultee might get if he or she were on the board.

Senator Bonner asked how the appeals board would deal with any aspect appealed to An Bord Pleanála. He said that he could not understand why an inspector's report gave an indication one way while the decision of the board was entirely different. I have told the appeals board that it must listen to all sides and produce a balanced finding which takes account of the greater good. An inspector may say one thing but three others, maybe from different areas, could say something entirely different.

Senators Bonner and Burke spoke about jobs in coastal communities. Senator Henry mentioned the effect aquaculture has had in such areas. I am from a coastal community, the Hook Peninsula, where there is quite a lot of aquaculture. My neighbours and friends work in the business and would not have been able to secure jobs in their home parish near their families and friends were it not for aquaculture. Jobs might not otherwise be created in such remote communities were it not for the aquaculture industry. The Taoiseach asked me to ensure that sustainable jobs were created in coastal communities when he gave me this job. I am pleased to say that is happening and there is room for growth.

People in particular bays are unhappy with salmon farms and shellfish cultivation. It is my intention that all people within a community around a bay are satisfied – not necessarily happy – with what is going on. There is plenty for everyone in bays, whether they are inshore fishermen, deep sea fishermen, people involved in shipping, environmentalists or people involved in tourism or aquaculture. Two years ago I introduced the co-ordinated local aquaculture management systems – CLAMS – where all interests around a bay meet and voice their views with a view to achieving a consensus that is not driven by aquaculture alone. Everyone can have a say in the matter. I am happy it has worked out quite well. I was courageous in that I introduced the first CLAMS programme in my parish and it has worked well. Those involved in the various spheres can all live happily with decisions taken. I intend to provide a CLAMS programme in every bay.

Senator Bonner referred to the CLAMS programme in Lough Swilly which is the second most recent programme introduced. There are still arguments in Lough Swilly and there probably still will be arguments there. I invited everyone in that area to be part of the CLAMS programme, but unfortunately one group declined. Today I ask it to embrace the plan because it can have a voice which it would not have had heretofore. I want to see that everyone, whatever their views, has an opportunity to express them. Consultation and consensus is vitally important. I call on all groups to consider others, let us live and let live on the basis that there is enough there for everyone. We have set a good programme in place.

I got some information on Lough Swilly recently and less than 2% of the area of the lough is under aquaculture. I was told by an eminent authority that the entire lough flushes within two days. In other countries, like Norway and Scotland, where aquaculture is widespread, it can take weeks or months to flush the fjords. Ireland is the most regulated country. It is also keenest on quality and allows for most consultation. We are right in doing that. No matter what a person's view is it should be heard but a balance should be struck. That is precisely what I intend doing.

The Fisheries (Amendment) Bill, 2000, is an important enhancement of the independent appeal arrangement at the heart of the comprehensive and transparent aquaculture licensing legislation enacted in 1997. I acknowledge the work done by my predecessor in another Government, Deputy Gilmore, in relation to this Act. The Bill ensures that the statutory aquaculture licence appeal board will explain its decisions and have the power to recruit staff directly to meet its needs. I commend the appeals board on dealing with a substantial caseload since its establishment in 1998 and I wish it well in its endeavours. I say so knowing that obviously it would have great difficulties from time to time.

The Bill also removes doubt about long-standing licence fees, which were imposed administratively in 1987. This is an important safeguard for the licensees in question and the Exchequer.

This Bill was initiated in this House and went through the House on an amicable basis, which indicates the interest all sides have in good legislation. I thank all those who participated in the debate from day one, particularly those here this morning. I also thank the officials of the House. The Seanad is important and this is a clear example of how important it is.

Question put and agreed to.
Question proposed: "That the Bill do now pass."
Question put and agreed to.