Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2007/2008

Date: 14 February 2008

Consideration of salmon and inland fisheries stakeholder forum consultation

14 February 2008

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Barry McElduff (Chairperson)
Mr David McNarry (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr Dominic Bradley
Mr Francie Brolly
Lord Browne
Mr Kieran McCarthy
Mr Nelson McCausland
Mr Pat Ramsey
Mr Ken Robinson
Mr Jim Shannon

The Chairperson (Mr McElduff):
Unless members feel that we need to discuss the consideration of the salmon and inland fisheries stakeholder forum consultation, I will park it.

Mr McNarry:
I think that we need to discuss it.

The Chairperson:
OK. I will go through it; I was simply trying to regulate time.

Mr McNarry:
I need to beg your indulgence to discuss the matter before you leave it.

The Chairperson:
The deadline for the return of the questionnaires is April, David.

Mr McNarry:
Will you indulge me?

The Chairperson:
I will try to make this item last for 10 minutes. We are dealing with the consideration of the salmon and inland fisheries stakeholder forum consultation, a copy of which has been given to members. I remind members that the Committee has agreed already to respond to the consultation. Part 1 of the document contains the introduction, part 2 contains background information, part 3 is the stakeholder representation, and part 4 is the Department’s proposals and questionnaire, containing approximately 25 questions. I suggest that members read parts 1 to 3 and then consider and comment on each proposal as set out in part 4. I again refer members to the letter dated 1 February 2008 from the Lough Neagh Fishermens Co-Operative Society Ltd.

A Committee inquiry into inland fisheries was conducted during the first mandate of the Assembly and was published in March 2001. An extract from that inquiry is also included in members’ papers. Recommendations 62 to 66, which are contained in that extract, are relevant to the review of the Fisheries Conservancy Board (FCB).

Members may wish to take those documents into account when responding to the consultation. They may also wish to consider the correspondence from the FCB, which provides details of stakeholders that are members of the board.

Mr McNarry:
I am getting a bit concerned about where we are going with the evidence that we are taking on this matter. The decision has already been made to abolish the FCB this year, subject to the review of public administration (RPA). With due respect to the Lough Neagh Fishermens Co-Operative Society Ltd, their evidence today and any letters that have been accepted have been slipped into our consideration of the matter. Have we not received other correspondence that has a contrary view to that of the Lough Neagh Fishermens Co-Operative Society Ltd? Why has that correspondence not been detailed and discussed in the same way? It must be put into context. I am sure that you will see to it that the other evidence will be considered; if it is not, a degree of unfairness will remain. Discussion of the matter has become one-sided and lopsided, and I am not sure why, given that the decision has been made to abolish the Fisheries Conservancy Board.

The Chairperson:
We are discussing the consultation on the stakeholder forum.

Mr McNarry:
I am coming to that now. The Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure’s (DCAL) document on the salmon and inland fisheries stakeholder forum consultation states:

“The Department will usually publish a summary of responses following the completion of the consultation process. If you would prefer your response to be treated as confidential, please let us know, stating your reasons clearly.”

Where on the form that is in my papers is there information that would allow the Department know who the response was from? If the Committee were to respond to the consultation, what would be its representative strength? Where on the form does one validate who one is?

Mr D Bradley:
The last page of the form has a space for the respondent’s name and organisation.

Mr McNarry:
That is the new form. My understanding is that thousands of forms that have no space on which the respondents can identify themselves are in circulation. Therefore, the Department cannot validate the response. Identification and validation are crucial elements of the process. People want to play fair, and they want to see fairness in the process. I understand that around 8,000 to 9,000 people are members of angling — including coarse angling — federations, clubs and associations. Those bodies responded to the consultation as a club or a federation, and they thought that they would receive due recognition because of the numbers that they represent. In the same way, the Committee should be duly recognised because it represents hundreds of thousands of people, and likewise, the views of the angling organisations should receive due recognition because they represent 8,000 or 9,000 people.

People are concerned that there is no weight difference in the responses. The process treats a club that has 200 or 300 members in exactly the same way that it treats one person. One guy sitting in a pub who fills out the consultation form is treated the same as clubs that have hundreds of members.

The Chairperson:
David, I ask you to make a proposal about what action you would like to be taken. It is obvious that you would like that point to be clarified.

Mr McNarry:
A member of the public made a telephone call to Kathleen Hyland, who is the response co-ordinator of DCAL, to ask about the consultation process. They were told that each response would be given equal weighting. The point was then made that there was no attribution or validation process and that there was no signing block on the response form. I understand that there has been a response to that, in that new forms that have a signing block included are being sent out. However, the thousands of forms without any signing block that were sent since the consultation was initiated still exist. I want those to be withdrawn. The whole exercise should be stopped and reconsidered.

Kathleen Hyland said that she was only the administrator and that she would advise her superiors about the concerns that that person had about the accuracy of the contextual background material, etc. A further telephone call was made to Liam Devlin, who is also from DCAL. He felt that the strength of the argument, rather than the numerical weight of opinion, would enable him to proceed — that is a DCAL official talking to a member of the public. This is a massive issue public-interest issue: we are moving from the abolition of the board into creating something that must be right.

I do not believe that part 4 of the consultation process is right: it is flawed and has been badly handled. It can therefore be corrected. The collective view of a club, or, indeed, the Committee, must be considered. What would our collective view represent? One vote. What would the collective view of a club with 200 or 300 members represent? One vote. What would the collective view of Job Bloggs sitting in the pub represent? One vote. I cannot see that the process is either fair or right, or that it will produce the answers that we are looking for.

The Chairperson:
What action are you proposing?

Mr McNarry:
I want the Committee’s support for the process to be withdrawn and rethought because of its inherent flaws and because the members of the public who contacted me are upset about it. I do not think that it is fair. In fact, I will challenge the process. Those flaws mean that the Committee cannot participate in the process.

Mr McCausland:
I know nothing about the issue; it is not a subject that I consider often.

The Chairperson:
Libraries and museums are more your thing.

Mr McCausland:
Yes; there are not many salmon fisheries in north Belfast.

Going by previous consultations, Liam Devlin’s assessment that the most important element is the quality of the argument rather than the quantity of replies is probably correct. However, that needs clarification. If the Department is running those processes, it is important that all the members of staff who are dealing with the issue, including the person who was contacted, understand that that is the case. That will avoid sending out mixed messages.

Clearly, there is a problem. A form was sent out, but there was no opportunity to authenticate it. It must be determined who was responsible for that significant failure. Some questions need to be asked. First, can the Department confirm that the quality of the arguments rather than the quantity of replies matter? Secondly, can some protocol or system be implemented whereby everybody in the Department is made aware that quality is paramount, so that when they are asked they will know the answers? Thirdly, can we find out how this happened and take appropriate action to ensure that it does not happen again?

The Chairperson:
Your comments suggest that we should send a letter to the Department. Do members think that officials should appear before the Committee? David, are you of that mind?

Mr McNarry:
The Department needs to correct what went wrong. I thank Nelson for what he said, and I agree with his analysis. However, the Department also says that it usually publishes a summary of responses, and it is asking that there be an automatic confidentiality disclaimer. What is the point in that?

The Chairperson:
OK. Do members agree on the actions that should be taken? You are calling for quite drastic action, David.

Mr McNarry:
Perhaps I am ahead of the game. I think that when we get the response to Nelson’s query, we will all be calling for the whole exercise to be withdrawn.

The Chairperson:
Are members content to agree to Nelson’s course of action for now?

Members indicated assent.

The Chairperson:
I want to direct members’ attention to the next item on the agenda —

Mr McNarry:
Before you move on, I have one more thought on the subject. We need to alert the Department about our concerns, particularly those that Nelson expressed about how this exercise is being handled with the public. That is what is causing problems.

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