The Sea Fisheries Act, 1952, which established An Bord Iascaigh Mhara, provided for the making of repayable advances from the Central Fund to the Board for the purpose of enabling them to exercise or perform their functions. There is a limit on the aggregate amount that may be advanced but this limit has been increased to £3 million by amending Acts. The advances so far made total £1,522,563 and are being repaid with interest by means of half-yearly instalments of annuities which have been regularly met by the Board. The 1952 Act rigidly requires repayment of the advances regardless of any exceptional circumstances that may arise. The purpose of the present Bill is to introduce a degree of flexibility by enabling repayments by the Board to be waived where both the Minister for Finance and the Minister for Lands consider that course desirable. Any amount repayment of which is waived under the Bill must, however, be made good out of voted moneys and thus be publicised in the Fisheries Estimate.
In explanation of the background to this measure I should say that, in the development of our sea fishing industry, it would be too much to hope that every item of expenditure would pay dividends; we must be, therefore, prepared to face some losses in the development of the industry. The bulk of the repayable advances made has been for the provision of boats and gear. It was important that as many boats as possible should be put into production and, in view of the very limited choice of competent fishing skippers, the element of risk involved in financing hire purchase transactions was inevitably high. This problem existed, of course, in the time of the Board's predecessor, the Sea Fisheries Association, and it became necessary to write off some of the advances that had been made to the Association before its dissolution in 1952. Provision for a deficit of £186,000 appeared in the Fisheries Vote for 1961-62. On that occasion special legislation was not necessary because the advances had been made from the Fisheries Vote and, unlike the advances made to the Board, there was no Act providing specifically for their repayment. The present Bill is necessary, however, before we can undertake a similar tidying up process in respect of the advances made to the Board in the past eleven years.
The difficulties encountered by fishermen in meeting their hire purchase commitments have been recognised by the Government and the Programme of Sea Fisheries Development published as a White Paper last year provided a new deal for the hire purchasers. Their repayment period was extended tby up to five years, the rate of interest payable by them was reduced to 4 per cent and they all started afresh on the basis of revised annuities from 1st April, 1962. As an additional incentive a refund of up to 10 per cent of the initial cost of his boat may be granted to a hire purchaser who completes his repayments in less than the extended period allowed. I may add that grants of 25 per cent of the cost of new boats and new engines are also available now and that An Bord Iascaigh Mhara are operating a fleet maintenance scheme which includes free inspection and should greatly reduce loss of fishing time due to break-down of engines and other machinery; other services provided by the Board now will help to improve fishing techniques and develop markets at home and abroad for fish and fishery products.
Before the introduction of the various incentives I have mentioned. the board had found it necessary to write off as irrecoverable over £100,000 due by hire purchasers and related to the advances made since 1952. As required by the 1952 Act, however, the board have continued to repay in full the advances received by them from the Central Fund. This Bill, which I recommend to the House, will enable us to allow appropriate relief to the board in respect of such advances.