Wednesday, 20 November 2019
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
This is a critical issue. What is at stake is that the polluter pays principle would apply. One could see in these documents which have been released, uncovered by Mr. Juno McEnroe in the Irish Examiner, Ms Lynn Boylan, a former MEP, and indeed Mr. Daniel Murray from The Sunday Business Post, that rather than the polluter pays, what we have had in the management of plastics in recent years is that the polluter sets the policy. Through this cache of over 100 emails, we can see a Department that is operating hand in glove with the industry representative group, Repak. In the drafting of the plastics directive in the European Union, which was only passed earlier this year and which is critical legislation, and in the debate on my party's Waste Reduction Bill 2017, which has been killed by the Government by its failure to issue a money message, at every stage of the process, the Department was turning to Repak for a steer on what was the best approach to take. In the European context, that was going right through most aspects of the legislation. The Government, effectively representing the industry, looked to weaken the provisions of the directive and reduce the category of items that might be included in restrictions to weaken timelines and constantly feed back to industry the latest developments. Reading the emails, as reported in the Irish Examiner, someone asks whether the recipient can telephone in the next half an hour. Indeed, in the emails published in The Sunday Business Postthe same system applied in the context of the processing of my party's legislation. It is not only email correspondence but, according to the articles, meetings were also held on a regular basis.
It is not right that, in the context of this country seeking to go green and wanting to gain public confidence in how public policy is managed, industry interests and the public interest are so entwined. In this area, the public interest is very real. This is not a minor or side issue for most people. I refer to single-use plastics, the problem of plastic waste pollution and the need for us to be stringent, ambitious and bold in terms of telling companies such as Coca-Cola and Britvic that we will run this consumer area not on the basis of their interests but, first and foremost, with environmental and consumer protection interests in mind.
That is why it is a significant and worrying development that the Department appears to be closely dependent on the industry representative group. I am keen to know what the Minister thinks of what was stated in these emails. I am keen to know whether he thinks this is acceptable practice. If he does not, I am keen to know what the Department will do to change its working procedures so that this type of lobbying on behalf of industry groups will not happen in Brussels or here.
This relates to the ongoing debate we have had in this House as to how Opposition legislation is treated. We never got a satisfactory answer. My party's legislation was in tune with the European legislation, even the version that was finally passed. All we heard at the committee was that we could not do it and, effectively, the industry reasons as to why it could not be done. That is not good enough.
I thank the Deputy for raising his concerns about this. My Department seeks to promote wide stakeholder participation in policy development and is always open to improving those consultations and to suggestions from the Deputy or others. The Bill to which the Deputy refers was first published in mid-2017, which was before my time in this office. It provided for prohibiting the sale or free distribution of disposable plastic cups, glasses, plates and other tableware from 1 January 2020, except for items which can be disposed of by composting in an ordinary domestic compost facility, and the mandatory introduction of a deposit and return scheme, DRS, for all beverage containers by 1 July 2019.
I have been informed, as I was not in the Department at the time, that the Department engaged with the Deputy and certain environmental groups shortly after the publication of the Bill. The Minister at the time supported the intent of the Bill, which aims to reduce the amount of plastic waste in the environment. However, he referred the Bill for detailed scrutiny to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and the Environment citing concerns about its compatibility with EU legislation and the cost implications for the Exchequer of the introduction of this provision. The resulting committee report acknowledged the incompatibility of the Bill with EU legislation and outlined potentially significant costs in establishing and operating a deposit and return scheme. Cost estimates considered in the course of the committee's deliberations identified costs of over €76 million in the first year of establishing the scheme with up to €72 million in costs for the second year.
The Government is not opposed to the possible introduction of a deposit and return scheme in Ireland. However, given the potential costs involved in its introduction, it believes that a proper study of the costs, impacts and effectiveness is necessary. The Department is currently undertaking such a review.
It is normal practice to seek the views of affected parties when considering a response to proposals. I am informed that in consideration of the above proposal the Irish Business and Employers Confederation, IBEC, and Repak were consulted as the need arose. The Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, was also consulted. It does not seem unreasonable to consult with Repak, which co-ordinates the delivery of the obligations of industry in this area. Repak operates under an approval from the Minister to act as a national compliance scheme for packaging. Producers of packaging have obligations under the EU packaging directive, as transposed in Ireland by the European Communities (Packaging) Regulations 2014. Repak is a not-for-profit organisation which carries out these regulatory obligations on behalf of its members. Under the terms of its approval, it is tasked with ensuring that Ireland meets its EU targets under the packaging directive and to report to the Minister annually on progress. It is also obliged to keep updated on relevant regulatory developments at national level.
I recognise that all stakeholders should have a fair opportunity to participate so all views can be fully taken into account. In terms of policy development, my Department will evaluate the analysis being undertaken on a deposit return scheme. Incidentally, the scheme is strongly opposed by Repak, so it has not been a slam dunk for whatever view is coming from industry. The Department held a major stakeholder forum in September on a new waste strategy embodying the circular economy plan adopted by all member states of the European Union. All stakeholders were invited to participate.
The approach I have taken since I was appointed to this office is to consult widely. I consulted widely before the adoption of the climate action plan and I am consulting widely at present before the adoption of a waste and circular economy strategy. I hold regular meetings. I have held ten town hall style meetings to ensure I am getting access not just to national interest groups but also to the views of people in the regions. The approach I seek to take is to receive all views fairly.
I understand that a Department, Ministers and politicians must engage with stakeholders and be informed. However, that is not what we see in the emails released under a freedom of information request. I can give an example. There is an email from 8 May 2018 from the Department to Seamus Clancy of Repak. It states: "As you know the Minister is before the Oireachtas joint committee today to discuss the draft report on the Waste Reduction Bill" and then puts a "quick question" about Repak. On the day it was being debated it was to ask if he could ring that day about what the Minister was going to say. This applied not just to how our Waste Reduction Bill 2017 was handled. It was the iterative in the circle. It was informing and being centrally involved, such as asking for a call in the next half hour and, further to a discussion earlier, asking what should be done in the European Council on the plastics directive.
The problem is that the Department was repeating Repak's line that our Bill was in contravention of European policy when, in fact, it was bang in line with European policy presented by the Commission and subsequently in the directive, despite all the efforts of the Government to weaken it. The Opposition had a correct legislative measure that was perfectly formed to meet what the European Commission was telling governments to do to comply with the new directive. While the Government was trying to water down the directive in Europe, it was saying here that it could not be done because it would upset industry and would not suit it. That is what happened and that is why Members on this side of the House are increasingly angered at how a legislative measure that was absolutely appropriate and bang in line with European legislation was turned down for industry interests and not on the basis of a policy approach formed by the Department.
The point of consultation is to get both sides of the argument and bring them to bear. It is not to hear only one side of the argument. There is an obligation on us to make massive changes in the way we manage resources, but we must also take their cost implications into account. The Deputy was keen to have a deposit and return scheme established, but there was evidence which the Oireachtas committee believed to be a realistic consideration that had to be taken into account with regard to whether one should impose that. When legislation is introduced by the Government, a regulatory impact assessment is conducted in the normal way. What tends to happen with Private Members' Bills in my experience is that all of that gets compacted and there may be hurried consultations. I can understand how the Deputy might construe them as being only hearing one view because there was a need to respond quickly, but it is the Department's policy and my view that everybody's voice must be heard and that we must try to achieve what we must achieve in a way that imposes the least burden and offers the most opportunity for us to succeed in our environmental objectives while also being compatible with other needs of the community. That is what I seek to do. If there are flaws in the way this is done, I will certainly seek to correct them. The approach I have taken in the consultations I have held is to be fair to all concerned. That does not mean, of course, that people will always be happy with the position I ultimately take, but that is the nature of decisions. It can be portrayed as only hearing one side of the argument. As this is so important, we seek to hear from all sides and make appropriate policies.