The Assembly met at noon (Mr Speaker in the Chair).
Members observed two minutes' silence.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I was advised on Friday last by the Business Office that my question for oral answer today, No 7, to the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister has been ruled inadmissible under sub judice rules. Will you advise Members if the issue of sub judice was raised by the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister or by your office?
It may be unreasonable to expect the Business Office to keep itself fully aware of all legal cases on which a question might be put. On this occasion the question was forwarded in the usual way. We were advised by the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister that an appeal had been lodged and the question arose as to whether this rendered the matter sub judice. The Clerks looked at that question and at the relevant Standing Order. Standing Order 68(4)(a) states
"in the case of courts of law, when the verdict and sentence have been announced or judgement given, but resumed when notice of appeal is given until the appeal has been decided;"
In other words, the sub judice rule applies until a verdict has been announced or judgement given. However, once notice of appeal is given, the sub judice rule applies again.
I asked the Business Office to seek advice in writing from the Court of Appeal on whether that was now the case. We received a written note from the Court of Appeal to the effect that the appeals have been lodged and will shortly be listed for hearing. That means that until those appeals are dealt with, these matters fall under the sub judice rule again. As soon as judgement is given by the Court of Appeal, that will cease to be the case. However, if the right of appeal to the House of Lords is upheld, the sub judice rule will apply again until such time as the appeal is dealt with, when it will no longer apply. I trust that clarifies the matter.
On a further point of order, Mr Speaker. This is a matter of some importance to the House. I tabled the question because I am finding it virtually impossible to get a response from the Executive on this matter. All of the civil servants were put out of the room the last time the Executive dealt with this matter so there was no independent record of what happened.
Taking the sub judice rule into account, how can Members establish what action was taken by the Executive when there were no officials present to record the minutes? Very shortly we will be dealing with the North/South Ministerial Council report from the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development. If a Member were to ask a question about how the unlawful activity of David Trimble is impacting on the the work of the Council, will that be viewed as sub judice and, therefore, inadmissible?
It is not uncommon - although never having been a participant I do not know from first-hand experience - for Executives in various Governments to meet on occasion without officials being present. The opportunity to question Ministers directly is always there except when a matter falls under the sub judice rule. The period of time - and I have no idea what length it was - from the judgement having been given in the case to the point where an appeal was lodged was a window of opportunity for a question to be asked. I do not know whether it was a practical opportunity to engage in a question. Such a window of opportunity will appear again subsequent to an appeal, the ruling having been given.
There are not many precedents in this matter, because it is not particularly common for Ministers in a Government to take other Ministers to court. We have to operate from first principles, and the principle of sub judice applies. The fact that civil servants are not present in the meeting does not mean that questions cannot be responded to. Sometimes such meetings are not regarded as formal meetings. However, the context in which those individuals were meeting is entirely a matter for the Executive and not for me. The sub judice rule applies at this juncture in respect of the matter which has been taken to court in two cases which are now under appeal.
On a final point of order, Mr Speaker. This is relevant to the ability of a Member to raise any question of any Minister coming forward with a report on the North/South Ministerial Council. If I were to ask the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development a question about the negative impact of David Trimble's unlawful activity, for example, would that be ruled out of order?
I will have to consider that matter, because that was not the question that I had to consider at the time. The question I had to consider at that time was whether the specific question, which related directly to the appeal, was sub judice. I will take your question and think about it with regard to the business of Ministers at Council meetings. There is no problem with asking questions about that. However, I will need to give some consideration to the question relating to whether there has been adverse consequence before giving a reply to the House.
Rev Dr Ian Paisley:
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. You said that Members had the opportunity to question Ministers at any time. Surely Ministers here have hidden behind what they call "confidentiality". Therefore, if the matter is not in the public domain we have no opportunity, at any time, to question them.
As I have said on previous occasions - and the Member will know from other experience - the opportunity to ask questions of the Minister here or elsewhere is not a guarantee of an answer from a Minister.
I am simply stating the obvious. There are Question Times, and there are opportunities to ask questions. Of course, it is difficult to ask questions about things of which one does not know, but Members frequently get a hint of something which they are not "behind the door" in asking a question about.
I have received notice from the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development that she wishes to make a statement on the North/South Ministerial Council sectoral meeting for the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights sector held on Friday 6 April in Dublin.
The Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development (Ms Rodgers):
The fourth meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council for the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights sector took place on Friday 6 April in Dublin. Following nomination by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, Mr Sam Foster and I represented Northern Ireland. Mr Frank Fahey TD, Minister of the Marine and Natural Resources, represented the Irish Government. The Executive Committee noted the papers for the Council meeting during the week commencing 2 April.
The meeting opened with updates from the chairman of the board of the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission (FCILC), Mr Peter Savage, and the chief executive of the Loughs Agency, Mr Derick Anderson. The chairman informed the Council of the contributions made by the agency and local angling clubs to curb the spread of foot-and-mouth disease. During the crisis the agency has not been issuing angling permits to fish in its waters and has curtailed its enforcement activities to boat patrols on the loughs and rivers. Agency staff have complied fully with disinfection procedures where they have had to address pollution or water quality issues. Anglers in the Foyle and Carlingford areas have been very co-operative and responsible in their attitudes during the crisis. I was very reassured by these remarks.
The chairman also advised us of a visit by a party of shellfishermen from the Foyle and Carlingford areas to Tralee and Clew Bays to observe the operation of shellfisheries there. This visit took place prior to the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease, and the shellfishermen were accompanied on the trip by members of the FCILC board's shellfisheries subcommittee, representatives of the cross-border Aquaculture Initiative team and a number of Loughs Agency staff. The visit proved to be a very useful learning exercise and provided a good opportunity for a range of interests to begin the process of co-operation that will result in more productive and better managed shellfisheries in the Foyle and Carlingford areas in the long term. Further, he advised that the Loughs Agency's regional office in Carlingford is now fully staffed and operational, and that a marine tourism officer has been appointed to begin work on drawing up a strategy on marine tourism for the Foyle and Carlingford areas.
The chief executive explained the further work undertaken by the agency - building on what was learnt from the trip to Tralee and Clew Bays - to ensure that all views on the development and management of shellfisheries are taken into account in setting up a regime that will lead to the development of a sustainable aquaculture industry in both loughs, and one that has the consensus of as many stakeholders as possible.
The chief executive also gave a report on fishing effort and the continued work in relation to poaching and pollution, and he further updated the meeting on plans concerning marine tourism. Although it is still early days, the agency is keen to develop a strategy that clearly defines its role, that sets the strategy firmly in the context of the various forms of fishing and that builds in support for the provision of the information, accommodation and services required to support and encourage fisheries-based tourism. It also aims to extend the strategy to cover other water-based tourist activities such as canoeing and mammal watching or birdwatching. I am, therefore, content that there is a heavy agenda of good work being progressed by the agency.
Following the updates, a presentation was made to the Council on the agency's detailed plans for selecting and appointing members to the advisory forum and focus groups which the Council agreed should be established at its meeting in November 2000. It is intended that the focus groups will represent the interests of a wide range of stakeholders in the loughs, including shellfishermen, nets-men, conservation interests and tourist representatives, to name but a few. The agency is keen to ensure that appointments to these bodies are made independently of the agency. To ensure this, independent consultants have been appointed to undertake the process of selection and appointment. The agency aims to have active groups by the end of this summer. The Council approved the agency's forwarding its draft equality scheme to the Equality Commission. I am satisfied that the agency has consulted widely in drawing up the scheme and that it has taken on board the outcome of this extensive consultation.
The Council approved a proposal by the agency that a review of the grading and salary of field staff posts be undertaken as a matter of urgency. The agency has encountered difficulties in attracting and retaining such staff, due to unfavourable salary differentials between its posts and those of comparable organisations in the rest of the island of Ireland.
We also approved a proposal to defer an overall review of the staffing structure of the agency for six months to allow sufficient time for it to acquire the aquaculture licensing function and to develop its strategy on marine tourism. The Council approved the making of three sets of regulations. These were, first, regulations on salmon carcass tagging to introduce a tagging and log book scheme for all salmon and sea trout over 50 cms. The introduction of the scheme will enhance conservation measures already in operation as well as provide the agency with more accurate information on catch data to facilitate better management of stocks in the areas. The Department of the Marine and Natural Resources introduced a similar scheme from 1 January 2001 for sectors other than the Foyle and Carlingford areas. I understand that the Fisheries Conservancy Board plans to introduce this scheme throughout the rest of Northern Ireland.
Secondly, regulations are being put in place to lift a ban on angling on a stretch of the River Foyle. The ban was introduced in 1999 to prevent illegal netting on a heavily poached stretch of the river and will be unnecessary when the tagging scheme comes in. This will extend the section closed to angling on the River Mourne to prevent excessive exploitation of salmon and sea trout in an area where there is a natural obstacle to migration.
Thirdly, the Council made regulations to extend the provision in relation to the close season in the Carlingford area - the periods when the waters are closed to angling to protect salmon and trout while spawning.
In addition, the Council was updated on the coming legislation to enhance the functions of the Loughs Agency of the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission (FCILC) in line with the North/South Co-operation (Implementation Bodies) (Northern Ireland) Order 1999 and on the transfer of functions of the Commissioners of Irish Lights to the body.
Finally, the Council agreed to meet again on 22 June 2001 and approved the joint communiqué, a copy of which has been placed in the Library.
I am making this report on behalf of Mr Foster and myself.
Mr J Wilson:
I welcome the Minister's report and note and welcome the fact that the chairman informed the Council of the contributions that the agency and local angling clubs have made to curb the spread of foot-and- mouth disease. I know the Minister is aware that that co-operation has been freely given, not just within the Loughs Agency, but right across the Province.
I would like to bring the Minister back to her statement that agency staff have complied fully with disinfection procedures where they have had to address pollution or water quality issues. I seek her assurance that considerable attention is being paid to the run-off of disinfectant, because thousands of gallons of disinfectant are now pouring into our drains, and then into our streams and waterways. Before I am reminded that I cannot ask questions about the Province in general I want to focus on the Loughs Agency. The same concern is expressed right across the Province. Is the Minister keeping a focus on this issue, and are her staff co-operating with other Departments - for example, the environmental protection section of the Environment and Heritage Service, which is an agency of the Department of the Environment?
I can assure Mr Jim Wilson that I am very aware of the problem of run-off of disinfection or, indeed, anything else in the waters. I have been assured by the agency that it is taking all the necessary precautions on the foot-and-mouth disease situation. I imagine that because it is an agency whose main purpose is conservation and protection of the fishing environment, it will most certainly be taking precautions to ensure that nothing is done to damage the fish stocks.
The Chairperson of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee (Rev Dr Ian Paisley): The Minister will be aware that the members of the Agriculture Committee were concerned about the inconsistency in regard to lights and the fact that the South of Ireland's fishermen pay nothing, whereas our hard-pressed fishermen have to pay towards the upkeep of lights.
The Speaker mentioned that the Minister was going to deal with the matter of lights dues. Was the need for equality of opportunity for Northern Ireland fishermen discussed at the meeting? Fishermen in Northern Ireland should not have to pay for a service which fishermen in the South avail of free of charge.
Dr Paisley will be aware that the payment of lights dues by fishermen in Northern Ireland is not a matter for the Government of the Republic. I commend the Government of the Republic for not asking their fishermen to pay the lights dues, and I should like our fishermen to be treated in the same way. However, we are governed by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions in Whitehall.
Dr Paisley might be aware that I wrote to the Minister to say that it is unfair that the fishermen should have to pay lights dues in Northern Ireland. In fact, I pointed out that fishermen in the Republic of Ireland were not required to pay those same dues. The response I received was not encouraging, so I wrote another letter to the Minister.
I have now been told that the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions is undertaking to review its policy on charging. I have asked the Department to ensure that the position of Northern Ireland fishermen is considered closely when this policy is being reviewed.
Dr Paisley will appreciate that at present this is a reserved matter of the UK Government. I will consider all the available options after the transfer of the functions from the Commissioners of Irish Lights to the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission, and we are attempting to develop that legislation at the moment.
I welcome the Minister's statement, and I thank her for making an important reference to the efforts of anglers in the Foyle and Carlingford areas to co-operate with restrictions during the foot-and-mouth disease crisis.
In the light of the important visit to the Tralee and Clew Bay shellfish farms, will the Minister ensure that the management of shellfish farms is stringently controlled, particularly in regard to pollution. It is well recognised that this constitutes a major threat to waters worldwide, and the Committee highlighted this as an issue of considerable concern in its recent report to the House.
Does the Minister agree that the three sets of regulations are a welcome addition to the existing measures for protecting our salmon and trout populations? As a Committee, we will, in due course, be making a formal report to the Assembly on the content of the regulations.
I thank Mr ONeill for his comments on the anglers whose contribution in the fight against foot-and-mouth disease is much appreciated. I met some anglers on Saturday during a visit to another area, and I was very aware of the difficulties being experienced by the angling clubs. They were nevertheless content that protection against foot-and-mouth disease has to be a priority, and I appreciate that.
The purpose of the legislation, which will be introduced as soon as possible, is to ensure that shellfish farms are properly managed and that all aspects of the operation are examined. I understand that the visit to Clew Bay was extremely informative and that the visitors learned a good deal about the management of those areas.
I have not taken a note of the next part of the question.
Are these regulations a welcome addition to the measures for protecting our salmon and trout populations?
Carcass tagging will be a very welcome means of protecting salmon. First, it will allow us to gain a clear picture and a database of the salmon stock. It will also be a helpful and effective way of preventing poaching of our salmon stocks. It will, therefore, be a very big advance.
I appreciate that the Minister's statement covers a wide range of issues such as foot-and-mouth disease, staffing matters, strategy and legislation. There is a pointer that says that some of this work has been outstanding for a number of months. Given the range of issues involved, will the Minister tell the House if she has taken any steps to ensure that there will be a full meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council to address these significant matters?
Mr Speaker, I am not sure if that question relates to today's paper.
As the Minister knows, questions are on the statement that she has made.
The Member will be aware that the SDLP supports full meetings of the North/South Ministerial Council. That has been our stated position. The Member will also be aware that the present embargo that has been placed - illegally, as I understand it - on Sinn Féin Members does not apply to my position on North/South Ministerial meetings in the field of agriculture. That is because, as a Nationalist Minister, I am always accompanied by a Unionist Minister. Therefore, it is not an issue in my own dealings with the North/South Ministerial Council. As some of the other issues are matters of judicial review, it would be unwise for me to say any more at this stage.
The Deputy Chairperson of the Agriculture Committee (Mr Savage):
The Minister stated that the Loughs Agency is keen to develop a strategy for sustainable industry in aquaculture. Is there any limit or control on the extent to which these businesses can, or will be allowed to, grow?
It is not the intention of the agency to curb the development of these industries. It wishes to encourage the development of the industry, but in a regulated way that will also enhance the conservation of fish stocks. There has to be a sustainable industry, and the purpose of the legislation is to ensure that. The industry will be limited only by the capacity of the loughs. We have to ensure that stocks are preserved.
I welcome particularly the announcement that
"a marine tourism officer has been appointed to begin work . on marine tourism for the Foyle and Carlingford areas."
Will the Minister advise us on the level of consultation that will be undertaken during the drafting of the strategy?
With regard to the drafting of our strategy, the agency intends to consult fully with all stakeholders. It recently advertised an invitation to interested parties to make suggestions as to how the consultation process should be established and what arrangements would be entered into. The outcome of that exercise was that the agency now plans to establish an advisory forum and focus groups, which will involve representatives of all of the local fisheries industries, including the marine tourism industries.
The focus groups representing all the sectoral interests in that area will consult with their own people - for example, in the case of marine tourism they will consult their wider community on marine tourism issues - and that will then feed back into the consultation process. Therefore, there will be a wide and, I stress, independent consultation. The agency will retain an independent consultant to recruit the membership of the focus groups and the advisory forum. Therefore, it will be a fully independent process of consultation with all the interests and stakeholders involved.
Last week, when the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment made a similar statement on North/ South meetings, he assured me that the minutes of those meetings were relayed to the Committee. I immediately checked that, but there was no trace of that's happening.
I also asked the Chairman of the Agriculture and Rural Development Committee whether his Committee is getting the minutes of the meetings that the Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development attends. He assured me that that was not happening.
These bodies are making important decisions on the internal affairs of Northern Ireland, yet all we receive from them are the statements that the Ministers deliver to the House. On this occasion, the statement is quite detailed, but that is unusual. Normally, we receive a few terse statements saying that a meeting was held, decisions were made and some money was disbursed.
Can the Minister assure us that the minutes of those meetings are, indeed, being referred to the Committee? If they are not, why not?
I assure Mr Wells that in everything I do and in all my dealings, whether in the North/South Ministerial Council or on issues specific to Northern Ireland, I have been open and accountable. I have never tried to hide anything, nor is it my intention to do so. All decisions made at these meetings are put into the public domain via a joint communiqué.
As the Member has clearly recognised, I have given a very full account of everything that was decided or discussed at the meeting. It is doubtful that the minutes will be any more enlightening, but I will certainly take the matter up. I assure the Member that he has nothing to fear and that I have nothing to hide.
The whole purpose of the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission is to enhance the capacity of both loughs for the benefit of people in both parts of Ireland, both in the development of tourism potential and of the industry itself.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I also welcome the Minister's statement, particularly the detail that it goes into on the situation, and the large number of issues that have been addressed. It is incredible that the Minister feels that the ban on other ministerial Colleagues is not an issue for her - it certainly should be.
Order. I fail to see how the issue to which the Member has referred, and to which I referred in a ruling on sub judice earlier, is related to the Minister's statement.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. You did not actually give a ruling on questions, in relation to another Minister asking questions -
Order. I referred to the fact that the Member is now asking a question that, by the very way that he asks it, indicates that it is nothing to do with that statement. These are questions on the statement - they are not general questions or questions on the generality of the Department. Members need to stick with the statement that the Minister has made. She has, in fact, already referred to precisely this issue.
I take your point, a Cheann Comhairle. My question relates to appointments to this particular body. It is not fully functioning, and, therefore, there are heavy costs in staffing, and so on. Can the Minister say something about that? It is not up and running because of legislation.
Are all measures being taken to allay the concerns of farmers in border areas about people entering lands via waterways, and the consequent fears of foot-and-mouth disease?
To set the record straight, the Member's initial allegation concerns something that I did not actually say. He criticised me for saying something that I did not say. I do not want to reiterate my party's position or my position on the matter, because those are well known. I assume that the Member's question refers to appointments to the body itself rather than to the people who have been employed. Is Mr McHugh suggesting that it is not a good idea to have a North/South body for the Loughs Agency? We think that it is a very good idea, because it enables Ireland, North and South, to work together on a very important area. The body will allow us to develop the potential of Carlingford Lough and Lough Foyle together. I presume that the Member is not suggesting that the body is a bad idea.
We could take the view that when a body is set up, it should have everything in order at once. It is obvious that when you set up a new body, you must make arrangements to make it fully operative. The body could not be fully operative from day one, given that legislation must be passed and we have to go through a consultation process with the stakeholders. All of that is part of the work of establishing what I consider to be a very important body that will enhance the potential of the loughs in the North and the South.
Given that Members have referred to the matter raised by Mr McHugh on two or three occasions and that the House seems to want direct reference made to it, I will look into it further. I refer the House again to Standing Order 68, paragraph (2), which states that
"matters awaiting or under adjudication in a civil court should not be referred to:"
I will study the matter further, but until then a straightforward reading of the Standing Order simply suggests what it says: the matter should not be referred to in a motion, a debate or a question to a Minister, including a supplementary question.
Because the House has pressed me, my interim ruling must follow what the Standing Order appears to mean. I will take legal advice on the question. The ruling may not appeal to all Members, but I trust that I have clarified matters as best I can. I cannot take any further points of order on that matter now, but if Members have other points of order that relate to the issue, I will take them at the end of questions to the Minister on the statement.
I welcome the Minister's report, but I would like some clarification of the statement that
"a presentation was made to the Council on the agency's detailed plans for selecting and appointing members to the advisory forum and focus groups".
It goes on to say that independent consultants will oversee the appointments. How many groups will be formed? Will the groups be quangos? Could the Department, with advice from the Committees, do some of the work? How much will each group or forum cost?
There will be one advisory forum and six focus groups. I cannot say how much those groups will cost, but I do not imagine that the cost will be very high. I assure Mrs Carson that it is very important that the Foyle and Carlingford Irish Lights Commision (FCILC) is in a position to consult with stakeholders and those who have an interest in the loughs. The legislation and regulations have not been in place before, and there are many people who have a legitimate interest in having their voices heard. It would be remiss of the agency if it were to ignore those people.
The best way to progress the legislation - since we are now going to have legislation to regulate the industry - is to give all these people their place, consult with them and ensure that they feel that they are part of the decision-making process. I do not see it as the setting up of a number of quangos; I would be surprised if it were a costly exercise.
I compliment the Minister, and her associate Minister, on this morning's report and the great work that she is doing generally in relation to foot-and- mouth disease. The report refers to the aquaculture of the lough shores, particularly of Carlingford Lough. The Minister met with the Carlingford Lough Shore and Land Owners Association. Its members outlined their concerns regarding the proliferation of aquaculture licences, particularly in areas where they have the ownership of the rights to the wrack. They think that there should at least be a moratorium on the issue of licences until the landowners' difficulties with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development are sorted out. Can the Minister accede to that, because it is important? Farming diversification for these landowners could mean aquaculture involving their wrack rights on the lough shore. Can the Minister give further consideration to a moratorium on, or a suspension of, further aquaculture licences on our side of Carlingford Lough?
I thank Mr McGrady for his initial remarks and his question. I met with interested parties, and Mr McGrady, on the issue of Carlingford Lough wrack rights. Individuals are claiming those rights, and they have provided evidence that is being examined by the Department's legal advisers. The legislation recognises the rights of individuals who have proven ownership of the right to collect wrack, and the issue is being progressed by the Department.
It is notable that this is the third report within two weeks of an all-Ireland Council meeting that has been attended by the Ulster Unionist Party. The report mentions a proposal that
"a review of the grading and salary of field staff posts be undertaken as a matter of urgency."
The communiqué talks of the review of the Loughs Agency's staffing and structure being postponed for six months until January 2002. There would seem to be some confusion between the Minister's statement and the communiqué that was produced. What is the staffing situation? How many staff are currently in the field? How many are required? When will the review take place? Will it be in January, or will it be carried out urgently?
I cannot give the actual staffing figures, but I will get them. I presume that the Member is talking about the overall number of staff that are employed by the agency.
I am talking about the number of field staff.
I do not have that figure to hand, but I will let the Member know. The review is of field officers only, so there is not a contradiction in the statement.
A Cheann Comhairle, I welcome the statement. It is useful to have these updates, particularly when some people do not have the opportunity to attend the meetings. However, it was a cheap shot from the Minister to respond to my Colleague Gerry McHugh without answering the question about the North/South Ministerial Council. The Minister will be aware that our party was instrumental in the putting together of all-Ireland structures. I need a clear answer from the Minister about the implementation of, and the legislation in relation to, these bodies to ensure that they are fully operational.
In case there is any doubt, I am talking about what is said in the statement. It is important at this time to get a clear line, because these cheap shots from the Minister about party politics are not in keeping with the statement. Does the Minister agree that the fact that SDLP Ministers continue to attend the North/South Ministerial Council meetings gives the impression that everything is rosy in the North/South Ministerial Council when, in fact, people are being excluded from the meetings?
Order. I have ruled that that matter should not be referred to, and there was a quite clear attempt to find some way of slipping the matter in. I must advise the Minister that she should not respond to that part of the question.
I do not think that there was a question in that tirade - except in relation to answers that I had given as being "cheap shots". I answered the question that I was asked - [Interruption].
I will repeat my question.
Order - [Interruption].
Order. The Member will resume his seat.
Ministers are not required to answer questions; they are requested to do so. I referred to that matter in response to a question by Rev Dr Ian Paisley. I have also made it clear that points of order are not in order during questions to Ministers. However, I am happy to take points of order at the end of the period of questions to the Minister. This matter also has arisen on a number of occasions. The Member has put his question. The Minister does not consider the issue that Mr Molloy has raised to be part of the question. I cannot rule that the Minister must answer any particular aspect of the matter that the Member has raised.
Would you let me explain? The Minister said that she did not think there was a question. I was simply explaining that there were two questions, one of which was already asked by Mr McHugh.
I leave it to the Minister to respond as she wishes.
It is to be regretted that Sinn Féin has turned a report on an important element of the North/ South Ministerial Council into a political point-scoring exercise. I will respond to any questions that I feel are relevant to my brief and that relate to my statement.
Will the Minister confirm that, according to the statement, extra fishing accessibility is being awarded to those in the Foyle constituency while fishing accessibility in West Tyrone is actually being limited? That seems rather strange, given the circumstances that the Minister will find herself in. Can she explain the rationale of allowing the reopening of accessibility to fishing on the Foyle, which will in fact limit the availability of fish passing through to the rest of the Foyle system? I am thinking of the River Mourne particularly.
Can she tell me exactly to which part of the River Mourne the ban on angling is being extended? Can she comment on the continued intimidation and threats to bailiffs in that area? Was that issue discussed at the North/South Ministerial Council meeting, and how is it being dealt with?
The ban on angling on a stretch of the River Foyle was introduced in 1999 to prevent illegal netting from a heavily poached stretch of the river. It will be unnecessary when the tagging scheme is introduced.
The area closed to angling on the River Mourne has been extended to prevent excessive exploitation of salmon and sea trout in an area where there is a natural obstacle to migration. The purpose of these exercises is the conservation of the fish stock and the enhancement of the whole industry.
How will the carcass tagging of 20-inch salmon prevent the overnetting and illegal netting that have been so prevalent in parts of the Foyle, Derg and Mourne rivers?
Salmon carcass tagging will be a more efficient and effective way of preventing illegal catching of salmon. Therefore, it will help prevent the illegal selling of salmon to hotels, for instance, because it will be difficult to sell a salmon unless it is tagged. If the salmon is not tagged, then it will have been poached. It will be much easier to keep track of salmon and ensure that people do not benefit from selling poached salmon - in the sense of being illegally caught, as opposed to being cooked. Also it can be done during the day by officials checking if the salmon being sold are tagged or not, rather than by policing the rivers during the night when most poaching takes place.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister's statement and particularly the plan by the Loughs Agency to establish the advisory forum and focus groups. Will the Minister assure the House that all the stakeholders will be fully represented on these groups? This did not happen when the agency itself was appointed. There was a distinct lack of representation in respect of the fishing community.
Is the Minister satisfied that the process undertaken and the criteria used by independent consultants will be fully inclusive, and particularly of the fisheries industry in Lough Foyle? Will these bodies report to the North/ South Ministerial Council? What costs will be incurred by employing consultants? Has there been any advance on the matter of the enabling legislation to allow the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission to operate fully?
Go raibh maith agat. Níl a fhios agam ar mhaith leis an Teachta go dtabharfainn freagra i nGaedhilg nó i mBéarla.
I was offering to answer in Irish, since the Member initiated her remarks in Irish. She does not want that, so I will proceed in English.
In relation to the focus groups - [Interruption].
As I have already stated, there will be a fully independent procedure to decide the membership of the focus groups. This will not be decided by me or by the bodies. It will be decided on an independent basis to ensure that they are independent of the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission itself. At the North/South Ministerial Council we had a full presentation on the process to be undertaken and the criteria to be used. I am entirely satisfied that it will be inclusive and that all stakeholders will be enabled to be involved in the consultation.
I cannot give a figure for the costs incurred by the consultants, but I will find out and let the Member know later.
We are proceeding with the enabling legislation, although there are some difficulties in the area of the appeals procedure. At the moment it allows for an aggrieved person to appeal a decision but not for a third party to do so. In other words, other people may object and have their objections overruled or not considered when making the decision. They do not have a right to appeal under our present legislation in the North, which could leave us open to a Human Rights Commission investigation.
A number of other issues are being looked at on both sides of the border, because the two jurisdictions need to bring the legislation forward together. A number of complicated issues still need to be ironed out, but I am hoping to have the legislation ready as soon as possible.