Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 12 October 2017
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government
Prohibition of Micro-Plastics Bill 2016: Discussion
We are now in public session and will engage in detailed scrutiny of the Prohibition of Micro-Plastics Bill 2016. Our second session today involves consideration of Deputy Sherlock's Bill on the prohibition of microplastics. This session will involve detailed scrutiny of the Bill. On behalf of the committee I welcome Deputy Sherlock to the meeting.
Before we proceed, I will give the notice on privilege again. Before we begin I draw attention to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I now call on Deputy Sherlock to make his opening statement.
I thank the Vice Chairman and members of the committee for giving me a hearing today. The Bill is self-explanatory. Microbeads and other microplastics are used in a variety of cosmetic and personal care products such as scrubs, soaps, lotions and toothpastes. They are added to these products to make the product more abrasive or for decoration. The Bill is a follow-on Bill based on a Green Party Bill put forward by Senator Grace O'Sullivan. I acknowledge the role of the Green Party in bringing forward the issue in the first instance. Our Bill seeks to follow on from that and to strengthen the Bill to allow for us to legislate.
Section 2 provides for the prohibition of microplastics. It provides that a person who manufactures, sells, exposes, offers, advertises, keeps for sale, imports or attempts to import into the State for sale any cosmetic containing microplastics is guilty of an offence. A cosmetic is defined as meaning any cosmetic or personal care product, including but not limited to facial scrubs, soap, lotion, shower gel, sunscreen, make-up, deodorant or toothpaste. Microplastic is defined as meaning plastic particles less than 5 mm in diameter. The section provides that a person guilty of an offence is liable, on summary conviction, to a class A fine or imprisonment of 12 months or both and, on conviction on indictment, to a fine or imprisonment for five years or both. Provision is made for the liability of directors, managers, secretaries etc. of corporate bodies where they consent to or connive in the commission of an offence by the corporate body. The section provides that it is a defence for an accused person to prove he or she did not know and had no reason to suspect the cosmetic in respect of which the offence is alleged to have been committed contained microplastics.
That is it in a nutshell. I have brought forward my Bill on the basis that I believe the State should move to legislate. I understand the Government stated its intention to legislate on an earlier Stage. On Second Stage of the Bill such a commitment was made. I have not had sight of any Government proposal to legislate for the prohibition of microplastics yet. I am hopeful we can keep this issue on the agenda. If the Government is to legislate for this and if we see the heads of a Bill coming from Government, I would be very happy to withdraw or amend my legislation. Until such time as that happens, I hope to keep the Bill on the agenda. If the Second Stage debate is anything to go by, it is something on which there is a willingness across party political lines to legislate for and to be seen as taking leadership on globally, given we are a maritime nation. The scourge of microplastics is something that is having untold health consequences for sea life. We now have evidence that it is finding its way into the food chain. It is quite an important issue. I am hopeful the committee will retain the legislation or allow for safe passage of the legislation.
I am delighted to see this legislation on the agenda. As Deputy Sherlock knows, last year I brought similar legislation before the Seanad.
I had a guarantee from the then Minister that he would inform the European Commission that Ireland wanted a prohibition on the manufacture and sale of microbeads and microplastics in Ireland. The first question is whether we can find out from the Minister what is the situation regarding his informing of the Commission. At the time, the then Minister spoke about bringing in an oceans Bill, which is not on the legislative programme, so I would like the Department to tell me whether there has been any progress in that regard, particularly because of what Deputy Sherlock said. We are a maritime nation and have over 7,000 km of beautiful coastline. We pride ourselves on the Wild Atlantic Way and maritime tourism. We are seeing evidence of microplastics and macroplastics on our shorelines. Coastwatch Ireland has done huge work in building up the evidence, which involves actually finding the pieces. These microplastics and microbeads are going into the food chain. As scientists at NUI Galway have the evidence to show in shrimps and prawns that these little pieces of plastic are in the stomachs of marine life that we in turn eat, a big health problem is coming down the line in this regard. I am fully in support of pursuing this legislation, as is the Green Party, and supporting Deputy Sherlock.
Yesterday, we received information that the European Commission has issued a draft release on plastics strategy as part of its circular economy package that has been in development for the past number of years. I agree with Deputy Sherlock that we as a maritime nation should be taking a lead on this. The Commission is talking about having a new plastics strategy, which includes recommendations for tackling microplastics under the registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals regulation. This is where we see that the Commission is starting to take action. I would like to see this legislation proceed through the Houses and to have more information back from the Department to tell us exactly where we are. We know a letter was sent but what is the outcome? We need the outcome, we need to support this legislation and we need to take a lead as a maritime nation and to be seen as a nation that recognises the value of our marine environment from an economic, social and tourism perspective. Deputy Sherlock has our full support with regard to this legislation.
There may be a defence by the Government on this to the effect that there are Single Market implications for the introduction of legislation of this nature. I appreciate that the then Minister communicated with Commissioner Vella. I am not sure what the status of that interaction is at present but there is a precedent when the former Minister for Health, Deputy Micheál Martin, introduced the smoking ban. It could have been argued at that time that it could have run contrary to some of the treaty provisions relating to the Single Market but as it was subsequently deemed successful as a measure, the same could apply here. The important point is that a number of countries have signed up to the principle of banning microplastics. This goes as far back as December 2014 in respect of the Netherlands, Austria, Luxembourg, Belgium and Sweden. A joint press statement was released by these countries calling for the ban and the political willingness is there. Regarding the communication from the Commission, I have not seen a legislative proposal or Commission proposal as of yet regarding this issue. It may be there; I may have missed it. However, I believe, as Senator Grace O'Sullivan said, that there is a strong willingness within the community for Ireland to take a lead on that and that is the main purpose of the legislation.
I thank Deputy Sherlock for presenting to the committee. The Bill has Sinn Féin's full support and Deputy Quinlivan outlined that during the Second Stage debate but I also want to acknowledge Senator O'Sullivan's work in the Seanad in proposing the earlier Bill, which, unfortunately, was not supported by the Government. It shows that there is quite a lot of cross-party support for this in both Houses. It is also important to state that when the Government chose to vote against Senator O'Sullivan's Bill, there were already precedents in three EU member states - Great Britain, France and Sweden - where legislation was either passing or the Commission had indicated that it had no objection to legislation passing. In fact, the Commission made it clear earlier last year that the banning of certain types of microplastics in cosmetics could be very consistent with the EU Internal Market rules so there was no automatic assumption. The Government knew that at the time but still chose the position it took.
Does Deputy Sherlock have any more information he can share with the committee either about the progress of those legislative bans in those three EU member states or other jurisdictions? I understand that a report was made available to the Commission about the environmental impact of these kinds of cosmetic products early last year. At that stage, Commissioner Vella indicated that the Commission was possibly looking at an EU-wide piece of work to reduce the negative environmental impacts. I am not suggesting that we should wait for that to happen - we should proceed with legislation here - but is Deputy Sherlock aware of the status of this initiative? If either he or Senator O'Sullivan have any information they can share, the committee would benefit from it.
I do not have any specific information about what is happening in other countries throughout the EU. I am basing my legislation very much on policy and principles and am seeking to find a mechanism through the Irish Legislature as to how we can design robust legislation for this issue. I have a very open mind about this. I would be quite happy were the Government to decide to take my legislation and to amend it significantly to allow for legislative passage of the Bill. I would very much welcome a further deliberation, if necessary, by this committee on some of those questions. If the committee decided that it was necessary to have further deliberations with outside persons such as experts in the field, I would be very happy to take part in that.
This Bill seeks to strengthen the Green Party Bill because the rebuttal by Government of that Bill was on the basis that it could run contrary to Single Market or treaty provisions. We have built into the legislation what we hope is a strengthening of that. A research report commissioned by the Commission in January 2016 stated it was unclear as to whether any of the existing directives or regulations that had been identified would be suitable. The EU is in a space at present where it has not come to a definitive position on this. It seems to be an iterative process. There is a school of thought that says that the Canadian and US legislation may not necessarily be transferable to an EU scenario. I have no doubt that there are challenges to passing this legislation but if we can move to the principle of the legislation and if this House decides that it wants to legislate for this, we can find ways of doing so.
I thank Deputy Sean Sherlock for attending and engaging with the committee. The committee will meet officials from the Department at a later date to discuss the Bill. Following those discussions a report will be compiled by the committee.