Lost at sea scheme flawed - report

 

Ombudsman Emily O'Reilly, has presented a special report to the Houses of the Oireachtas, following rejection by a department of her findings in relation to the Lost at Sea scheme.

It is only the second time in the Ombudsman office’s 25-year-history such a step has been taken. The first case involved former Ombudsman Kevin Murphy, who referred a case relating to the Revenue Commissioners to the Oireachtas in 2002.

That report was referred on to an Oireachtas committee which resolved the issue to the Ombudsman's satisfaction.

The report presentation today has been made under Sections 6(5) and 6(7) of the Ombudsman Act, 1980. The Ombudsman has recommended compensation of almost €250,000 be paid to the Byrne family of Donegal, whose application under the Lost at Sea scheme was rejected.

The scheme, introduced by former marine minister Frank Fahey in 2001, was designed to provide compensation in the form of tonnage quota, to families or people who had lost fishing boats between 1980 and 1990.

Under the current EU Common Fisheries Policy, fishermen require tonnage share to run fishing vessels, and it has become a valuable commodity. The scheme attracted complaints from families whose applications were turned down, as it ran for only six months. Only six out of 67 applicants qualified, and two of the six were in the minister’s constituency.

The Ombudsman initiated an investigation into the exclusion of the Byrne family. Complaints from five other parties were not upheld.

Mr Danny Byrne’s father and brother, along with three crewmen, died when the Skifjord sank in 1981, and the Byrne family applied to Lost at Sea after the closing date for applications. They argued the scheme, which had been advertised in the fishing press, should have been publicised more widely.

Three years ago, the European Commission told Fine Gael MEP Jim Higgins that it had never been informed of the scheme’s existence

The Ombudsman’s investigation concluded that the Byrne family’s application did not meet at least two of the conditions of the scheme and that the family was adversely affected by the decision to reject its application.

However, the Ombudsman also found that “the design of the scheme and the manner in which it was advertised were contrary to fair and sound administration and that these shortcomings were factors in the Byrne family not qualifying for assistance under the scheme”.

“Weaknesses in the design process included a lack of adequate research of files held within the department regarding vessels lost at sea during the relevant period, lack of documented analysis of the pros and cons of the Scheme’s qualifying criteria and a failure to include provision for the exercise of discretion in the vetting of applications,” the investigation says.

Advertising of the scheme “should have been more thorough, comprehensive and targeted”, the Ombudsman says, and some prospective applicants were put in a more advantageous position than others as they were written to directly by the department and the minister to inform then about the Scheme when it was launched.