Seanad Éireann - Volume 194 - 26 March, 2009

Fishing Fleet Decommissioning Scheme.

  Senator Liam Twomey: This issue arose in the courts and I was informed the case was settled two weeks ago, but that does not seem to be so. The issue relates to the decommissioning of a fishing boat. No vessel can be decommissioned until the Department has given permission for that and permission is usually given on the basis that decommissioning is approved. In this case, because the decommissioning was appealed and this appeal went to court, the shipping vessel in question is still tied up in Kilmore Quay. The Department has been asked to sign off on the vessel and allow it to go for scrappage but to allow the terms stand if the court so agrees. That is because it is now basically a health and safety issue and the ship may be a danger to people who use the harbour. There are also significant costs involved for the individual concerned who must pay for the vessel being in port.

The Department has the discretion to say the vessel can be decommissioned without prejudice to the case. The problem with regard to the court case is that the Minister is, technically, the person being sued. Will the Minister of State inform me whether the case remains sub judice or what we can say on the issue? I understand that in the High Court this morning and two weeks ago no representative turned up from the Department to say whether it agreed with the judge’s terms.

  An Leas-Chathaoirleach: We must be very careful in our discussion in case the matter is sub judice and before the High Court.

[846]  Senator Liam Twomey: The problem is the High Court has made a decision. However, there was nobody in court from the Department to accept that decision. That is the reason I am asking the Minister of State to clarify the situation as it is the Minister who is involved. A decision was made this morning with regard to costs, but nobody turned up to represent the Minister. There is, therefore, a difficulty. It may well be that the case is completed, but will the Minister of State inform me whether that is the case? I assume the case is completed and the Minister can now speak on it as the judge has given his decision. However, on two occasions in the past fortnight nobody turned up in the High Court to represent the Minister or to defend the Government’s position. The position two weeks ago was that the judge found there had been an inordinate delay in the case. Will the Minister of State give me some guidance on the issue before we discuss it at length? It is a serious case, which has been going on for years, and its outcome will have a significant effect on the person involved.

I will take direction from the Minister of State on the decision. If the Department considers the case is finished, we can continue the discussion on the case of the individual in question. However, the Minister may intend to appeal the decision to the Supreme Court. Perhaps the Minister of State will indicate whether that is the case. It is unbelievable that when the State is being sued by an individual because of something such as the State disagreeing with one of its appeal boards, the State does not turn up for proceedings. I must get direction on this matter from the Minister of State before we go any further.

  Deputy Trevor Sargent: Gabhaim buíochas leis an Leas-Chathaoirleach as ucht deis a thabhairt dom labhairt ar an ábhar seo. I am familiar with the scenario of fishing boats that are no longer in use being tied up in harbours, particularly in my area in Balbriggan and Skerries. I thank Senator Twomey for putting down this motion for debate as it gives me an opportunity to update the House on the successful implementation of the decommissioning schemes in line with the recommendations of the White and Cawley reports. I am restricted in what I can say regarding compensation for the vessel involved as I have not yet received the written judgment on the case.

Under the terms of the EU Common Fisheries Policy, the primary mechanism for reducing fishing effort and finding a balance between the fleet size and available fishing entitlements is decommissioning. In Ireland, it is widely accepted that there are too many boats chasing too few fish in most species. This basic imbalance leads to the following problems: pressure on fish stocks through over fishing, which in turn has led to the new range of EU restrictions on fishing activity and effort; a volatile economic and financial environment for the boat owners, the fishers and the processors in the industry; and an underlying temptation to exceed fishing restrictions, which can in some instances lead to legal actions against fishermen and by the EU against the Government.

The central recommendation of a review carried out under the chairmanship of Mr. Padraic White in 2005 was that the Government should back a decommissioning scheme to remove 25% or 10,937 gross tonnes of the whitefish fleet — polyvalent and beam trawl segments — and to reduce the scallop fleet to a level of 4,800 kW. Following the review of the decommissioning needs of the whitefish and shellfish fleet by Mr. Padraic White in July 2005, the scheme to permanently withdraw capacity from the demersal and shellfish sectors of the Irish fishing fleet, commonly referred to as the fishing vessel decommissioning scheme, was launched on 5 October 2005. The closing date for receipt of applications was 1 November 2005. There were 64 applications under the scheme. The terms of the decommissioning scheme provided a right of appeal to an independent appeals officer appointed by the Minister — a non-statutory arrangement.

An updated analysis undertaken in the Cawley review in 2006 indicated that whitefish stocks generally, and available quota in particular, would have to be 45% greater to yield a viable [847]return for the vessels in the demersal — whitefish and nephrops — sector. Steering a New Course, the Strategy for a Restructured, Sustainable and Profitable Irish Seafood Industry 2007-2013, the Cawley report, recommended a restructured fishing fleet consistent with the sustainable exploitation of available resources and economic requirements of vessel owners and the shore-based industries dependent on it.

Following agreement with the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and state aid approval by the European Commission, the 2008 scheme to permanently withdraw capacity from the whitefish sector of the Irish fishing fleet was formally launched in February 2008. A total of 71 applications were received. Some 45 of these vessels decommissioned at a total cost of €36 million and with a total of 6,818 gross tons and 19,039 kW being removed from the register. Some €21 million of this was spent in 2008 with the remainder being spent in the first quarter of 2009.

There are overwhelming benefits to getting the fundamental imbalance adjusted between fleet capacity and fishing entitlements. It would result in a secure future, based on attractive economic returns, for those remaining in the whitefish and shellfish industries.

In the specific case raised by the Senator, the application to decommission the vessel in question was made under the 2005 decommissioning scheme. It was governed by Council Regulation No. 2792/1999, which lays down the detailed rules and arrangements regarding Community structural assistance in the fisheries sector and specifies that, to be eligible for a decommissioning grant or scrapping premium, a vessel must meet the following criteria: the vessel must have carried out a fishing activity for at least 75 days at sea in each of the two periods of 12 months preceding the date of the application for permanent withdrawal; the vessel must be ten years old, or more; the vessel must be operational at the time the decision is taken to grant the premium; and prior to its permanent withdrawal, the vessel must be registered in the fishing vessel register of the Community.

The purpose of the decommissioning scheme for the demersal and shellfish fleets is to establish a better balance between fleet size and available fishing entitlements. Ireland’s fishing fleets, like those of all our European partners, are governed by the rules of the Common Fisheries Policy, a complex policy that incorporates a significant volume of legislation. Ireland’s fisheries are subject to a range of management measures put in place to ensure the sustainable exploitation of fish resources. These obviously impact both nationally and at an individual level, and significantly affect how each fishing vessel or fisherman may conduct business. There is a complex range of instruments employed under the CFP to manage fishing within the EU.

The person involved applied for the decommissioning of his vessel. BIM wrote to the applicant on 1 September 2006 advising him that he had been unsuccessful in his application because he had not met the minimum criteria of the scheme, specifically the days-at-sea requirement. The applicant appealed this decision and on 5 September 2007 the appeals officer granted the appeal. The Department sought legal advice as it believed the appeals officer’s determination was in contradiction of Council Regulation No. 2792/1999, which sets down the detailed rules for the payment of grant aid in the decommissioning scheme. In the context of the legal advice received, a judicial review was commenced.

The High Court judicial review judgment in regard to this vessel was given on or about Friday, 20 March 2009, and the Department is awaiting the perfection of the order in the High Court offices. This is expected to be available within the next few days. The Department will be consulting legal advisors in the context of the perfected judgment when it is available. I am not yet able to comment on possible compensation or a timeframe for this, especially in view of the fact the legal process has not yet been completed and the possibility of an appeal cannot be ruled out at this stage.

[848]  Senator Liam Twomey: I will have to accept what the Minister of State is saying but the judgment made should have been sought by or given to him in preparation for this reply. As he is well aware, this is a very serious issue and a huge financial burden is being placed on the individual involved. There is a sense of David and Goliath in that the individual does not have the financial resources of the State. If the Minister examined this case, he would understand there is merit in paying the compensation rather than trying to break the individual financially, perhaps in a Supreme Court appeal. Will the Minister of State make these views known to the Minister, who has ultimate responsibility? The taxpayer has certain protections and we cannot be wasting money on expensive court cases. More important is the individual right of the citizen, which the Minister should bear in mind.

  Deputy Trevor Sargent: I must be very careful in commenting, as the Senator will appreciate. Suffice it to say the Department is simply trying to be fair to the applicant while at the same time ensuring the integrity of the scheme. Precedent and the need to be in compliance with the EU regulations governing decommissioning must be considered. In trying to be of assistance, it is important that we do not land ourselves in circumstances that we will question in hindsight. This is why there needs to be a process in which every t is crossed and every i dotted. This is why I cannot say any more today. Perhaps the Senator will table a further question when, as it seems, a fuller answer will be available in days to come.

  Senator Liam Twomey: I appreciate that.