Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2008/2009

Date: 13 November 2008

Salmon & Inland Fisheries Forum

13 November 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
The Lord Browne
Mr Kieran McCarthy
Mr Raymond McCartney
Mr Nelson McCausland
Mr Pat Ramsey
Mr Ken Robinson
Mr Jim Shannon

Witnesses:
Mr Marcus McAuley )
Mr Liam Devlin ) Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure
Ms Kathleen Hyland )

The Chairperson (Mr McElduff):
In December 2007, the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure issued a consultation paper on a proposed salmon and inland fisheries forum. The Committee responded to that consultation in April 2008. The Department is before the Committee today in order to brief it on the outcome of that public consultation and its proposed way forward. The Committee will note, from the Department’s briefing paper, that its recommendations for having at least four affiliated anglers on the forum, and for the forum to meet quarterly, have been taken on board by the Department.

At this point of the meeting, it is appropriate to invite departmental officials to join us. I welcome Ms Kathleen Hyland, Mr Marcus McAuley and Mr Liam Devlin from the inland fisheries branch of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure.

Mr Liam Devlin (Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure):
I will make today’s presentation on the stakeholder forum.

The Fisheries Conservancy Board (FCB) is the representative forum for salmon and inland fisheries interests in Northern Ireland. It is separate from the Loughs Agency, which has its own areas of responsibility and its own advisory forum. The FCB is to be abolished in early 2009 under the review of public administration, and its function will be transferred to the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure. As part of the winding-up process, consideration has been given to how stakeholders’ interests can be best represented once the functions of the FCB are transferred to the Department. The conservation and protection of salmon and inland fisheries are of paramount importance, and it is proposed that a non-executive forum is established in order to involve people who have an interest in such matters. It is expected that the proposed forum will provide valuable input into the decision-making process with regard to salmon and inland fisheries policy and operations.

In considering the setting-up of a forum, the Department reviewed existing models of stakeholder representation, as exemplified by the Loughs Agency, Republic of Ireland regional fisheries boards and the Scottish freshwater fisheries forum. After initial consultation with the current board, officials drafted a consultation paper designed to seek the views of all those who have an interest in salmon and inland fisheries. The document set out a series of proposals on which consultees were asked to comment, and acted as a guideline for those who wished to respond. It also set out the relevant contextual and background information.

Officials drafted proposals on the terms of reference designed to inform the make-up, role and operation of the forum. Comments were invited on the title of the forum; the proposed composition of stakeholder interests; the proposed organisations from which nominations would be sought; the proposed method of nominations; the location of the forum; the leadership structure of the forum; frequency of meetings and attendance at same; the role of the forum; secretarial support; and remuneration of members. The consultation process began on 20 December 2007 and closed on 11 April 2008 — a total of 16 weeks.

The Department issued the consultation paper to a wide range of fishery and non-fishery interests, including angling clubs, commercial fisheries and other fishing organisations, statutory bodies, Government Departments, district councils and the Assembly. The Department also sent letters to MLAs informing them of the consultation paper, and advertisements were placed in the three main newspapers. The DCAL press office circulated a press release to various news desks, including the BBC, and to various publications, including ‘Trout and Salmon’, ‘Irish Angler’ and ‘Irish Countrysports and Country Life’. In addition, a reminder was sent in February 2008 to all who received the written consultation to remind them of the closing date. The consultation was published on the main DCAL website and on the DCAL angling website.

One hundred and twenty-seven responses to the consultation were received, and returns were accepted for several weeks after the closing date in order to ensure that as many responders as possible were given an opportunity to register their comments. The responses were then collated and electronically recorded, and an assessment panel of administrative, policy and technical personnel from inland fisheries was set up in order to analyse and agree a response to each comment received.

The panel was charged with objectively assessing the relevance, practicality and quality of the comments. Mr Gregory Campbell, the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, asked officials to source someone from outside the Department to quality-assure the panel’s assessment. The Loughs Agency agreed to carry out that exercise, and reported back to the Department on 23 October 2008. The agency largely agreed with the DCAL analysis of the responses, but made a number of suggestions, based on its own experience, which were incorporated into the overall consultation conclusions.

The assessment panel made a number of changes to the proposed make-up and nature of the forum as a result of comments received during the consultation. Some of the recommendations addressed the concerns that were raised by the Committee for Culture, Arts and Leisure in its response to the consultation, and in the transcript of the Ulster Angling Federation’s presentation on 10 April 2008, which was included as a part of the Committee’s response. The Committee proposed that the forum should meet quarterly; that representation for affiliated anglers should be greater than two members, and suggested four; that there should be enhanced angling representation on the forum and on subcommittees; and that there would be a problem with reaching consensus at meetings.

The assessment panel considered those recommendations, which were also made by other consultees, and made the following changes to the workings of the proposed forum: quarterly meetings will be held, with additional meetings to be held at the forum’s discretion. However, DCAL should set upper limits on the number of additional meetings, consistent with budgetary and logistical considerations. In order to address the perceived imbalance between commercial and angling representation, angling representation will be increased from four members to six, to include unaffiliated and four affiliated anglers. Angling interests will now have six representatives, as will commercial fishing interests. In addition, nominating bodies will be encouraged to consider geographical spread when considering nominees. The forum will be asked to form subcommittees for particular issues, which should include committees on angling and commercial fishing to investigate, analyse and make representations on specific issues and events as directed by the advisory forum.

The original consultation proposed that the forum must reach consensus on issues before forwarding any view to the Department for consideration. The Department is now of the view that, although the forum should be urged to find consensus or agreement on issues, the forum can decide what is forwarded to DCAL, and whether that is a consensus view, a majority view or a range of views.

Other changes adopted as a result of responses to the consultation include the following: the original proposal was for landowners to be represented by nominees selected by public advertisement. DCAL accepts that the Ulster Farmers’ Union should be represented, and that, therefore, the landowners’ stakeholder group should be represented by one Ulster Farmers’ Union representative and one publicly advertised place, on the basis that not all landowners are farmers. As fish merchants are direct DCAL stakeholders, they should be offered an opportunity to sit on the forum. Appointments of representatives will be for five years, based on the Loughs Agency experience, and reappointment is acceptable if performance is satisfactory and members wish to remain on the forum.

The locations of meetings can be rotated and held at various DCAL venues, including Bushmills, DCAL headquarters and former Fisheries Conservancy Board premises at Portadown. The chairperson and deputy chairperson of the forum should be elected by members on a rotational basis, and consideration will be given to asking an independent chairperson to oversee the first few meetings in order to allow members of the new forum to evaluate their colleagues prior to making a decision on who should act as chairperson and deputy chairperson. The forum should accept substitutions in only exceptional circumstances, and DCAL will consider asking nominating bodies to select substitutes at the initial selection of nominees. Three successive non-attendances should trigger de-selection, although that will ultimately be for the forum to decide. The importance of regular attendance should be emphasised when selecting members.

The next steps in the process are as follows: the publishing of results of the assessment panel findings will include publication on the DCAL and angling websites, and a letter will be sent to each person who responded, informing them of the outcome of the consultation. The proposed nominating bodies will be contacted to propose nominations; a public advertisement exercise will be carried out to seek nominees where no nominating body exists; and terms of reference will be drafted for the forum, to include recommendations for subcommittees to be established. That will be agreed with the forum.

The timing of the establishment of the forum will depend on the progress of the Public Authorities (Reform) Bill, which will abolish the Fisheries Conservancy Board and transfer its functions to DCAL. That concludes my presentation, and we are happy to take questions.

Mr McNarry:
You are very welcome. Thank you for the presentation and for the documentation. It seems to be very efficient, so well done. I congratulate you on that. You mentioned that the current board will be defunct by early next year. Do you expect any delays or do you think that that timetable is ok?

Mr Devlin:
It very much depends on the passing of the Public Authorities (Reform) Bill, which is being taken forward by OFMDFM. The Bill is, I believe, at Committee Stage, and there will be further Stages, therefore we are not 100% sure whether the impasse in the Executive will have any impact on the passing of that legislation. However, OFMDFM informed me yesterday that it is still on course, possibly for March 2009.

Mr McNarry:
Let us hope that issues in the Executive will be resolved long before then. When, therefore, will the new forum be established?

Mr Devlin:
The timing will be critical, because it will depend on whether we get a definite date for the abolition of the FCB. However, we will begin work on publishing the results of the consultation and contacting the nominating bodies with a view to getting nominations, but informing them that is very much dependent on the abolition of the FCB. However, we do not want to start too early in case interest in the nominations wanes, because the worst thing that we could do would be to ask for people’s attendance and then the issue drifts because the FCB is still in existence. Therefore, we will have to keep a close eye on the timing of the enactment of the Public Authorities (Reform) Bill.

Mr McNarry:
There has been some negativity from the outgoing board, which is, perhaps, understandable. Do you foresee any problems in the transition? Will the board be isolated, or will it be asked to come together, or will one body simply stop and the other take over? Is there any necessity for the bodies to share anything in the handover? It is not really a handover, but I am sure that you understand what I am trying to say.

Mr Devlin:
The Fisheries Conservancy Board is a statutory body, so, when the legislation is passed, the board will no longer exist. Therefore, there will be a definite date for the abolition of the board. Some members of the new forum may possibly be former members of the Fisheries Conservancy Board.

Mr Narry:
I do not want to hear you say that. How do you know that?

Mr Devlin:
I do not know that. I said possibly, but the Fisheries Conservancy Board is the current stakeholder forum, and those stakeholder groups are still relevant in the issue of salmon and inland fisheries.

Mr Narry:
We should probably not go down this route, but I wish that you had not said that. We are talking about a body that is being removed for specific reasons, and now you are telling me that people who are involved in it might become members of the new forum. I hope that that is not the case.

My final question is central to what you have just said. Will the forum’s chairperson and deputy chairperson be nominated by forum members?

Mr Devlin:
Yes.

Mr McNarry:
Will they self-nominate?

Mr Devlin:
They will self-nominate, but it is expected that the positions will be rotated in order that all stakeholder groups have an opportunity to be chairperson and deputy chairperson.

Mr Shannon:
I am keen to ensure that there is involvement from the fishing organisations and the bodies that regulate and monitor the sport. Are those organisations and groups supportive of where you are going? Have you had any adverse feedback on the proposals?

Mr Devlin:
We have had no substantial adverse feedback on the consultation. The consultation responses have not yet been published, so the organisations may not be fully aware of the changes that have been proposed to the original consultation. The organisations made comments during the consultation process, and, if their issues have been addressed, I would imagine that that will secure buy-in from those organisations with regard to support for the new forum.

Mr Shannon:
I know that the consultation document has not been published, but are you aware of what they said?

Mr Devlin:
Yes, we are aware of what they said.

Mr Shannon:
If you are aware of what they said, and if you are aware of what you intend to do, have you had a meeting of minds?

Mr Devlin:
We have not had a meeting of minds because the consultation responses have not yet been published. However, once it has been published and we send out a letter, we will certainly offer to have meetings with those people in order to discuss further if clarification is required.

Mr Shannon:
I hope that I have not got the wrong impression of what Mr Devlin said. However, if the groups have concerns and are not happy with something that has been proposed or that may not be suitable for what they are after, will they, at this late stage, still be able to have some input into the process whereby their views and concerns will be reviewed; or when the consultation period is over, is that it?

Mr Devlin:
We have had ministerial agreement to departmental response to the consultation and it would be difficult to go back on that. However, if it appeared obvious from the concerns that we received that we made a mistake in the consultation assessment, then that can be reviewed. We have taken on board the views of all the consultees, and we have made changes based on representations from angling clubs. We hope that the consultation process will have addressed the main concerns of those organisations.

Mr Shannon:
From the feedback that I have received, I do not think that you will find critical differences. However, they may have concerns on technical issues. I hope that we have a meeting of minds and that we can pull together. That is what fishing is all about — the people who fish.

Mr K Robinson:
If the consultation process goes as expected, when will the positions be advertised publicly?

Mr Devlin:
We do not have a definite timescale for publication. However, we will start work as soon as the consultation responses have been published, and at that stage will ask nominating bodies for nominations. Public advertising is undertaken where no nominating body exists. The timescale for abolition of the FCB is next March, and we hope to be moving to that stage around January.

Mr K Robinson:
By its nature, it is difficult to tie down the unaffiliated section. However, are you reasonably happy that the organisations that have contacted you, and the organisations of which you are aware, will be represented in the final make-up of the panel?

Mr Devlin:
We are content that the main bodies that represent affiliated anglers will be represented. Unaffiliated anglers will have to go to some sort of advertisement.

Mr K Robinson:
Will you use public advertisements for unaffiliated anglers, too?

Mr Devlin:
Yes, for unaffiliated anglers.

Mr K Robinson:
To some degree, it is unaffiliated anglers about which I am concerned. Angling has tremendous potential for further development and for the tourist industry. Like Jim Shannon, I am interested in bringing back to life the eastern seaboard rivers. In my constituency, the Larne and Inver group has worked wonderfully well in the area around Larne Lough, and the Three Mile Water group has wrought miracles by bringing salmon back into Belfast Lough. There is, therefore, the potential for people to bring rivers back to life. People have also been using that potential in well-established rivers — the Bann system, the Braid system, the Foyle and so forth.

How will those be married to develop the potential of new rivers coming on stream in order to boost tourism potential? Obviously there is a commercial group, and it will continue to do what it has been doing, and it will provide jobs and income. However, there is the potential for further income through angling clubs. That is why I am concerned about the unaffiliated clubs and members who are probably that reservoir of expertise that would allow us to take that next leap. Are you convinced that you have tapped into that source, and that that source will be represented on the new body to give us the springboard that will allow us to develop angling even further?

Mr Devlin:
Two places have been allocated for unaffiliated anglers. Much depends on the response to the public advertisement exercise as to whether that group will be adequately represented on the forum.

Mr K Robinson:
It is one thing to stand by a riverbank and flick a fly, or put a worm on the end of a hook, but a lot of background work must be done, and red tape gone through, in order to get rivers back into good shape. How will the new forum help to streamline that process?

Mr Devlin:
The new body will provide an advisory forum to make proposals to the Department on local issues as well as wider issues, and to comment on the performance of the Department in certain areas. It is a two-way communication opportunity: for the forum to provide the Department with the information that, perhaps, we need to inform policies, and for the Department to use the forum for consultation on policies, and to provide briefings to those people.

Mr K Robinson:
Thank you for the response that you have made with regard to the thoughts of the Committee. Those thoughts are reflected in the paper, and I am grateful to you for that.

Mr Brolly:
How do you expect the new forum to be an improvement on the Fisheries Conservancy Board?

Mr Devlin:
The main change will be that the forum will be non-executive — it will be an advisory forum. It will have the freedom to make policies and decisions for Departments to consider. It will also streamline the Fisheries Conservancy Board, because certain groups will no longer be represented on the new forum. In addition, the forum represents an opportunity for the Department to interact closely and directly with a group of stakeholders, because we will have the executive functions relating to enforcement and protection of salmon and inland fisheries.

The Chairperson:
Thank you for your presentation on the salmon and inland fisheries forum consultation.

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