Dáil debates

Wednesday, 30 September 2020

Forestry (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2020 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed)


Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

3:05 pm

Photo of Brian LeddinBrian Leddin (Limerick City, Green Party)
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This Bill is important. It was nobody’s intention that the forestry licensing system would become blocked and unfit for purpose. However, that is the situation we have, and we will continue to have saplings rotting in nurseries and jobs in rural areas at risk unless we, as legislators, do something about it.

I am my party’s spokesperson on climate action and I want firstly to address the Bill from the perspective of our climate crisis. We do not have any time to waste. We have spent years and years talking about the dangerous levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere and how climate change will affect everyone, but especially the world’s poorest. We need to pass this Bill to get forestry licensing working again because we need to convert a lot of land to forestry to help to meet our climate goals. We do not have time to wait another year, another six months or even another month. Our mild climate makes our country one of the best habitats for trees in the world. We have farmers ready to go and we have the forestry industry ready to go. We cannot, in good conscience, allow an administrative system to hold everything up.

I want to say something about the farming community because much of both my own party’s approach and the approach of the Government has been informed by the need to work with the farming community to make the significant changes we need for a sustainable future. It is significant that we have two Ministers in the Department who are both working farmers. They have both shown sensitivity to the challenges that farm families face. We all want a sustainable future for farming that protects and enhances our environment and provides a stable income for those who work the land. It is true we are going to have to change the way we do things in some ways over the next few decades but we can make the changes with a spirit of partnership, respect and flexibility. We simply cannot tackle the climate and biodiversity crises unless we work in partnership with farmers.

The Minister of State, Senator Hackett, has acknowledged some of the problems facing the forestry sector, and I know it is a sector she is serious about. I acknowledge the genuine effort made at consultation on this Bill and the changes the Minister of State has made as a result of this consultation. Most of us in this House share concerns about the over-reliance on a single species and I know the Minister of State wants to work in partnership with landowners and the forestry industry to find sustainable ways of changing how we plant that can benefit both farmers and biodiversity.

We want to have more forest cover in this country. We want forest cover that supports wildlife, gives a decent income for farmers and provides materials that can be used to make sure the carbon that is sequestered is locked in. We need more timber used in construction in particular. However, none of that can happen if we have a licensing system that is not fit for purpose. Even though our forest coverage is the highest it has been in centuries, at 770,000 ha, or 11% of our land area, it is still one of the lowest in the EU. Half of this is owned by Coillte, and I want to particularly acknowledge the work of Coillte Nature recently in some of its innovative work to increase biodiversity. Conifers represent over 60% of our forest cover and although I share very legitimate concerns about monoculture plantations, it is also important to acknowledge that coniferous species will continue to be important in construction and other areas. Yes, we need more continuous cover and less clear felling and we need more species diversity in our forests.

I know the Minister of State has ambitious plans in that regard but, again, none of these plans can be addressed unless we fix our forestry licensing and appeals processes. I know there is some frustration about the direction forestry has taken over recent decades. As urgent as the biodiversity and climate crises are, we still have to work with landowners to make the changes we all know we need. To advocate solely on the basis of castigating others wins us no friends. Anger alone cannot achieve the changes we need. It will take some time to steer this ship in the direction we want to go. Providing a working licensing system is a good first step.

3:15 pm

Photo of Violet-Anne WynneViolet-Anne Wynne (Clare, Sinn Fein)
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We are again debating a Bill representing a reaction to issues that have been allowed to develop rather than being nipped in the bud and dealt with head-on when they first cropped up. The issues facing the forestry industry have long been mooted and were mentioned in an article in the Irish Farmers' Journalas long ago as December 2019. As per usual, when questioned about this in May, the previous Minister, Deputy Creed, made out that this was only a temporary setback which would be soon sorted but look at where we are now. We now have our backs against the wall and are rushing through legislation which is required to save jobs.

Just last Friday, I met local representatives of the Irish Farmers Association in Clare to discuss the association's pre-budget submission. Among the several issues discussed was that of the delays in granting felling licences. Approximately 17% of the land in County Clare is planted and this delay in granting licences is causing stress across the sector. Felling companies are running out of work and landowners are not able to harvest their crops. We must all understand the need for sustainable forestry management but we have concerns and our party has submitted a few amendments to address these.

It is claimed that this Bill will streamline the work of the forestry appeals committee and allow it to operate along the lines of An Bord Pleanála but the process to be appointed to the committee is questionable. Simply put, our amendment will ensure that the Minister's appointments to the board will take matters such as biodiversity, water quality and climate change into account and will ensure that his or her appointees will have the required experience in these fields. That is not an unreasonable request.

There are also concerned about the timeline for appeals allowed for in this Bill. It is quite clear that the time limit of 28 days to lodge an appeal is insufficient. This is why we propose extending the period to 42 days. We would also like to ensure that the timeline will begin from the day of public notification of a licence being granted rather than the day on which the decision is made. This would prevent any underhanded moves against the public's right to appeal.

Another aspect of the Bill about which I have concerns is that it allows the Minister the right to reduce the timeline for appeals but not to extend it. This provision beggars belief and needs to be removed as it makes no sense.

Finally, I would like to address some issues regarding the fees for lodging appeals. It is worrying that no provision has been made for caps on these fees. This means that the Minister could stand before the House in the coming months and announce that outrageous amounts will be charged for lodging appeals, which would prevent many people from doing so. While we agree in principle with the introduction of fees for appeals, such fees must be reasonable. Sinn Féin proposes that they be capped at €50. Again, this is not an unreasonable request.

None of these amendments is irrational. We have agreed to waive pre-legislative scrutiny of this Bill to ensure that jobs are protected but we must ensure that the Bill stands over the basic fundamentals of both sides in this discussion.

Photo of Holly CairnsHolly Cairns (Cork South West, Social Democrats)
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I formally congratulate the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, on her appointment. We need transformative change in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. I know that bringing about such change will be challenging but it is essential and I really look forward to working with both the Minister of State and the Minister to achieve it. I really hope this legislation is a bad start to a brilliant term.

As the Minister of State explained yesterday, there is a crisis in the forestry sector. The licensing and appeals system has been overwhelmed by delays, an issue which was not addressed until it was, in many ways, too late. This has been detrimental to our afforestation strategies, the industry and a great many jobs and it is now detrimental to an important appeals process as well. We all agree that an efficient appeals system is needed. However, this Bill is not that. The Government’s argument is that the appeals process needs to change but many of us believe the Department should simply deal with the appeals it gets.

Imagine if we dealt with other situations in the same way in which the Government is dealing with this one. Imagine if there was a really long waiting list for the driving test and, instead of carrying out more tests, we made it really hard and expensive to apply. It is quite difficult to imagine and that is why so many people are aghast at the approach being taken. This legislation fails to address the problem we have.

This is not a new crisis, as those in the sector have pointed it out repeatedly. In the four years for which the forestry appeals committee has been in existence, it has only heard 33% of the appeals lodged. The current average rate at which appeals are heard is 20 per month so, predictably, there is now a backlog of two years. We knew this would happen so why wait until breaking point to address it? I know the Minister of State is new to this brief and is not responsible for the inaction of previous Governments but it is worth acknowledging that this is ridiculous.

The sector understandably supports the Bill. However, it is the only solution the industry, which is on the brink of collapse, has been offered. Of course it is in favour of some kind of action. As with the national broadband plan and the children’s hospital, we are being presented with a unsuitable proposal at a time when people are so desperate that they are forced to accept it.

While the Government buys into its own rhetoric that it is saving the industry, it does not acknowledge that it is its own inaction and underinvestment that put the sector in this position and at risk in the first place. In future, a new approach is essential.

Time and again, when it comes to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, we see the same ridiculous turn of events unfold. We first see shortcomings on the part of the Department and its policies, this is then somehow not the focus of the debate and instead the industry is pitted against environmentalists and we have that pointless debate. The result is that the industry and the individuals who will be most affected by climate change are most worried about climate action. This is happening in every sector for which the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is responsible. The situation we are in today is a classic example of this.

From meeting representatives of the industry over recent months, I know that they do not take issue with an accessible appeals process. Their issue lies with the snail’s pace at which the Department is getting through them. Nobody I spoke to in the forestry sector has any kind of intention whatsoever of damaging the environment. The opposite is the case.

We know the forestry sector has to play a key role in addressing the climate crisis we are facing and the industry knows that too. It is a sad reality that this is not what we are discussing here today. That policies are not anywhere near good enough to address this, that these inadequate policies shape everything in the sector, and that the Department has not been able to process appeals adequately is not the fault of the industry nor the fault of people who have genuine concerns about planting and felling licences.

We can all agree that we need more resources and expertise in the licensing and appeals system to clear the backlog. There are solutions here that will not negatively affect a democratic appeals process and I seriously urge the Minister of State to consider them.

One of my amendments seeks to introduce a statutory obligation for "appeals to be heard in a timely manner". This simple change, which does not represent a redrawing of the whole system, will resolve the sector’s key concerns.

This legislation does not address some other major issues for the sector such as climate change and Brexit. More than 80% of our forestry exports go to the UK. We need to make sure we learn from mistakes like this. We cannot wait until this industry is in the midst of another crisis before doing something about it.

If we learn anything from the Covid crisis, it should be to prepare for future crises, particularly those we know are on the way. This Department should be leading the way with solutions to the climate crisis rather than creating the problems. Forestry needs to be recognised as one of the most important solutions here. The Department cannot continue to treat it like a poor relation of other agricultural industries. I would love to work with both the Minister and Minister of State to achieve this.

We need ambitious policy to help this sector not only to survive Brexit but also to create a sustainable industry. Given the Minister of State's specific brief, we should be using the little time we have on forestry to discuss a national forestry programme and its role in increasing biodiversity. Stakeholders have been calling for this for years. The programme for Government commits to creating one. We need to concentrate on this rather than on eroding regulations.

This Bill is being pushed through at a very irresponsible pace. The heads of the Bill and public consultation process were published on the Friday afternoon of the August bank holiday weekend, a tactic formerly used by the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government when releasing ever-increasing homelessness figures. That public consultation ran across August, when we know that people are less likely to engage.

This Bill is being rushed through the Houses of the Oireachtas. On Thursday, we were asked for amendments to the Bill before the Seanad had even made its amendments. At first I thought that, as a new Deputy, I did not quite understand the process but I quickly learned that this is extremely unusual and represents poor practice. The stages of the Bill are basically being rushed through as a box-ticking exercise.

Our primary role is to make legislation. We need to ensure that we scrutinise laws. Along with others, I am deeply concerned that due to the speed of the passage of the Bill, nuanced and subtle aspects have been overlooked that will potentially leave the State open to criticism and liability under national and international environmental commitments.

While there are welcome additions in the Bill, there are also many items which are not fully developed or are concerning for public involvement. The ability of the forestry appeals committee, FAC, to sit in all divisions will allow more appeals to be heard, and I welcome that. However, we must ensure this does not result in a diluting of expertise. There is no guidance in the legislation to ensure the divisions will have sufficient expertise to guarantee informed decision making. I have submitted amendments to secure the independence of the appeals committee. It is essential that the committees are populated with the right people and are separate from the Department. The Minister of State has likened this system to An Bord Pleanála, in which case the FAC should similarly consist of experts from relevant representative bodies.

We need commitments that the committee and its divisions will have sufficient knowledge of the industry, good forestry practice, biodiversity, water quality, climate change and environmental legislation. We also need commitments that the Minister will not appoint officers from the Department or the Government to the committee.

The legislation provides the Minister with the power to make regulations for the forestry appeals process. On the face of it, this is good as it allows changes to be made to address future obstacles. However, there is no clear Oireachtas oversight of this. It is a concentration of power in the Department without the necessary checks and balances.

The Bill introduces reasonable fees for appeals. I emphasise the term "reasonable" because the Minister of State said that the fees would likely be €20 for a submission and approximately €200 for an appeal. Similar to Senators Ruane and Higgins, I have submitted an amendment to change this to fees which are "fair and equitable". I urge the Minister of State to seriously reconsider her thinking on the issue of fees. I imagine the Minister of State would agree that the ability to participate in the licensing and appeals system should not be an economic privilege.

The Bill highlights the Government's perspective on public participation in decision-making. At the heart of a vibrant democracy is the engagement of citizens. The State needs to encourage involvement from communities, NGOs and everyone. This principle needs to underpin how government functions. However, in Ireland this is often not the case. Communities may believe they are struggling against the State. The Protect Our Native Kelp campaign in Bantry and the Save Our Skibbereen campaign against a plastics factory are two recent examples from my constituency of Cork South-West. It should not be left to such communities to raise vast amounts of money to put right these wrong decisions in court. Regrettably, in attempting to resolve the forestry appeals backlog, the Government is rolling back on one of our more progressive participatory systems. This is undoubtedly a mistake. Attempts to define who can be involved, financial barriers and the use of complicated mechanisms, such as the access to information on the environment regulations, erode the ability of people to contribute to decisions that affect their areas. This is at odds with good public participation practice. Furthermore, I remain unconvinced that it meets our commitments under the public participation directive and the Aarhus Convention. How robustly has this legislation been scrutinised? Can the Minister of State guarantee that this law will not be found in breach of the right to participate in environmental decision-making and to challenge public decisions?

Forestry can make a significant contribution to a sustainable economy that supports rural communities. The current forestry system is failing communities, the industry and workers. The erosion of regulation and the introduction of fees will do nothing to address these underlying issues. We need a new forestry programme, and we need it yesterday. The sector is in desperate need of reform. Stakeholders are ready for the challenge of developing an ambitious scheme that will define a new era in Irish forestry. We should be focusing on forestry policy that takes urgent climate action and supports the industry to do the same. We know importing timber is not the solution. We know using concrete instead of timber is not the solution. We know placing barriers into an appeals process is not the solution.

Ireland is the most deforested country in Europe. While reforestation is ongoing, most of it is with non-native plantations used for commercial forestry. While this is better than importing timber, these forests are poor habitats for wildlife. We need more broadleaf forestry. Government policy needs to incentivise both these approaches - the latter with urgency - for the industry to be able to do that. We need clear rewilding strategies, the conversion of portions of agricultural land to native forestry and the establishment of wildlife corridors. We need forestry on every farm, with special incentives in place along watercourses and special areas of conservation to generate connected wildlife corridors throughout the country.

I am supportive of aspects of the Bill but I also have serious concerns about it. I have submitted several pragmatic amendments based on my engagement with the forestry sector in west Cork, farmers, environmental groups, constituents and colleagues in the Seanad. I have balanced a variety of perspectives in addressing the appeals backlog, the right of public participation and the sustainability of the sector. Issues, including the independence of the appeals process, the involvement of experts, the participation of the public, the current crisis in the sector and the timely processing of appeals, need to be addressed. I call on the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, and the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, to look seriously at how they can accommodate the amendments that I and like-minded Deputies have submitted, as agreed at last week's briefing.

3:25 pm

Photo of Marc MacSharryMarc MacSharry (Sligo-Leitrim, Fianna Fail)
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Deputy Farrell and I are sharing three and a half minutes each, unless there is any time residue left over from the previous speaker. I imagine we would happily use that too.

I thank the Minister of State for the opportunity to address this Bill. I welcome the legislation on the whole. We badly need to address the long backlogs from concerned communities, in terms of appeals that are awaiting outcome, and the forestry industry. For the first time ever, the industry is in real danger in terms of continuity of supply for various products, including timber and forestry residue, for the second quarter of next year.

I welcome the fact that, like An Bord Pleanála, we are going to split. As the previous speaker has said, it is important that we get the range of expertise right. It is neither preferable to have too many ecologists nor no industry representatives. A balance of both is required so that we can achieve the environmental responsibilities and targets we yearn for as well as cater for the supply of timber. There are some 12,000 employees throughout the country. One example in my area is Masonite in south County Leitrim. The company employs 140 people and pays some €8 million in wages each year, predominantly to people in Leitrim, Longford and Roscommon, as well as €500,000 in rates. That is the sort of contribution at issue. The company uses the residue from forestry in the products it makes. Such companies are important to our economy and it is important that we support them. Timber mills throughout the country are in difficulty over supply. Timber auctions have been cancelled.

Anyway, I am not simply here to hold a candle for industry, although it is important and I believe the measures in this legislation must be immediately followed up with the appropriate resources. When the Bill is passed later this week, please God, the job will not be done. The job will only be done when we quickly recruit those who need to be recruited and get the additional deputy chairpersons involved so that the appeals board can divide and take appropriate decisions in the interests of communities and the industry.

Again, as someone from the north west of the country and as someone who is conscious of our environment, as all of us are in the north west, I am mindful of the fact that if all counties were pulling their weight in terms of forestry, then we would be in a better position. County Leitrim, instead of hanging around 11% in terms of national cover, has a higher rate of coverage. Coverage in Ireland is the lowest in Europe, as previous speakers have said. The average Europe-wide is 30%. In Leitrim we are probably closer to the 30% figure. As Deputies may be aware, the official figure for forest cover in County Leitrim is 17%. It is argued locally - I have seen it myself - that up to 50% of agricultural land is afforested. That is difficult for communities. They do not want over-afforestation in a particular location and the Government needs to be conscious of this. The appeals board and those assessing applications need to be conscious of this when they are assessing applications. They need to listen to local communities. I do not like the removal of "relevant person" or the idea of someone from a particular perspective or modus operandion the Falkland Islands being able to dictate what might be grown in Sligo, Kildare or Dublin. I do not believe this is the right thing to do. I believe we can trust our people. I would appreciate if the Minister of State could take some of these points on board.

3:35 pm

Photo of Alan FarrellAlan Farrell (Dublin Fingal, Fine Gael)
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I thank Deputy MacSharry for yielding. I congratulate the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, on her appointment and wish her all the best in her role.

I welcome the Bill, which remedies a problem in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine but also assists us in achieving not just targets we have set in the programme for Government but also in regard to afforestation. While the State has been a little late in its response, the Minister of State and the Department have been very responsive in setting about finding a resolution to the issue with the appeals process that was highlighted effectively by environmental groups and citizens. Those issues are addressed in the Bill.

The Bill will improve the circumstances in which the industry finds itself and clear the backlog of applications and appeals. We can now begin, I hope, to transform the industry and to make it a more efficient and productive sector within our environment and economy. As a people, we have a long and proud tradition and respect for our land and environment. It has sustained us through centuries of hardship and struggle, building a bond between us and the land. In some respects, this makes Ireland an outlier when compared with many other countries. Ireland's commitment to afforestation, for example, is an area we should be proud of and one in which we should be even more ambitious. A number of colleagues mentioned the difficulties with some of the afforestation of non-native species that has taken place in recent years. It is an important aspect of the consideration of the climate and biodiversity crisis we have declared in the State and that is recognised globally.

The destruction of forests throughout the globe has had a dramatic effect on our environment and lives, which is why it is important that Ireland take the lead, not only to catch up with our European colleagues, who have a much higher afforestation rate, but to pass them out. We have been world leaders in many areas over many years, and I would like afforestation to be yet another in which we take that lead. The benefits are plain for everybody to see, from improved air quality to preventing soil erosion and providing new habitats for flowers and animals that have been increasingly driven out of their environments. Perhaps the most important aspect of wide-scale afforestation is that trees act as a carbon sink, removing carbon from the atmosphere that we have put there. Recent studies have shown the dramatic effect these carbon sinks can have. One study published in a science journal in October last year suggested that the correct level of afforestation could remove up to two thirds of CO2 emissions created by humans. This is a staggering figure in the context of the ambitions we have in front of us and the commitments we have given.

Our country and our international community have seen major changes this year in the advent of Covid-19, but these pale in comparison with the challenges we face in respect of climate change. Indeed, it is the greatest challenge our generation and subsequent generations will grapple with. Our success or failure in this battle will determine our future as a species on this planet. I support the ambition of the Bill and the broader ambition of not just the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications but also of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine.

Photo of Brian StanleyBrian Stanley (Laois-Offaly, Sinn Fein)
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There is a crisis in the forestry sector and it needs to be urgently addressed. This is an industry in which thousands of jobs are at risk in rural areas where there is little or no alternative employment. In Laois-Offaly alone, for example, almost 100 workers are reliant, either directly or indirectly, on the forestry sector in timber production, sawmills and so on. Some of these workers are already on short-time work due to the crisis. The crisis is very real for sawmills in the likes of Coolrain, Mountrath and Portlaoise, where families are worried. Supplies of wood are reaching a critical point for the construction and biofuel industries. The sawmill in Portlaoise has scaled back production of wood pellets and cannot meet demand. It is estimated that only about 25% of logs that are needed are in the supply chain and have been approved for licences.

It has got to the point where we are importing timber into Ireland to meet demand. Some Deputies will be aware of the alarming case of timber imported from Germany that was contaminated with the bark beetle, an insect that led to 32 million cu. m of German timber having to be disposed of in 2019. We cannot allow such an incident to occur in Ireland. We need to reduce our dependency on imported timber and allow our industry to get back to work.

We support the substance of the Bill and will certainly not argue it is not needed, but we will submit a number of amendments aimed at dealing with bottlenecks in the granting of licences and to make the appeals system work more efficiently and fairly. We support the proposal for a modest fee for those who want to lodge appeals or submissions on the granting of licences, but it must be capped at a reasonable sum; it should not be a barrier. The forestry appeals committee must be adequately resourced to clear the backlog to allow it to deal with licences much more quickly. Farmers in Laois have forestry they cannot harvest and their applications are lodged in the queue of the appeals system, going nowhere for months on end, which is not good enough. Legislation will be worthless unless we invest the resources.

We need a new forestry policy to increase the number of broadleaf trees, improve biodiversity, increase carbon sequestration - forestry can play a major role in this - and promote unfarmed forestry, not forestry as a replacement for farms.

We ask that these issues be taken on board. We will support the Bill, although we will table amendments to it.

Photo of Paul MurphyPaul Murphy (Dublin South West, RISE)
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I am sharing time with Deputy Boyd Barrett. It is clear from the figures, and from any visible comparison of Ireland with other European countries, that we have a problem with afforestation here. There is a total of 11% in Ireland, versus an EU average of 30%, and very low levels of afforestation at the moment, combined with higher harvesting rates. It is a problem that needs to be addressed but it needs to be done so in the correct way, not with the expansion of Sitka spruce monoculture, which is environmentally damaging, and not by eliminating public participation and a public process of appeals and so on. It needs to be addressed as part of a sustainable plan and as part of a green new deal that involves sustainable jobs and so on.

In my opinion, however, that is not the approach the Government has taken in this case. There are a large number of problems with the Bill, the first of which are the procedural ones. The number of tricks and manoeuvres the Government has used to try to force through the Bill without proper scrutiny is striking. It is reminiscent of the worst old days of overall majority government, ramming through guillotines, avoiding pre-legislative scrutiny and so forth. Every sly move possible has been used. The consultation period started on the Friday of a bank holiday weekend and ran for the summer holidays. The details of the submissions to that consultation are not available. Even the Oireachtas Library and Research Service has stated it has not been given enough time to analyse the submissions. The need for pre-legislative scrutiny was waived and now tonight's debate will be guillotined.

We will, therefore, debate on Second Stage, which is the debate in principle, for another couple of hours and at that point we will have until 9 p.m. to deal with a huge number of amendments. What will happen, for the benefit of people who are not in the Chamber, is that not only will those amendments not be discussed, they also will not be voted on. It is a completely inadequate process and it will be striking to people when they compare it with how proposals for sick pay for workers or proposals for dying with dignity are dealt with by the Government. Those matters can be kicked to touch and tied up in knots for six months but it is another rule in this case.

It is the Green Party that is doing this. It is dirtying its hands with this grubby deal.

What makes it worse is that those involved in campaigning on these issues know that if it had not been participating in this Government, the Green Party would have been on the opposite side of this debate and it would be criticising both the lack of public participation and process around the Bill and the contents of the Bill itself. It has its Cabinet seats and like in Animal Farm, one can look from blueshirt to green and from green to blueshirt but already it is impossible to say which is which.

On the content of the Bill, last year a report for the Fine Gael-led Government complained about an appeals system which allows third parties, at no cost, to challenge the decisions of the Department. It will not surprise people that Fine Gael was giving out about a system that allows ordinary people and community groups to challenge the Department but now we have the Green Party joining in with trying to silence the voices of those environmental groups that it once claimed to support.

The Bill would allow the Minister to impose whatever fees he wants on people who bring appeals to the forestry appeals committee. In the Seanad transcript I read speculation that this could cost people up to €220, which was not refuted by the Minister of State. Some families and communities that are heavily affected by this due to where they live could have many such appeals to make, and they have the right to make many such appeals, meaning they could be charged thousands of euro in order to be able to have their voices heard. The Government's hope is to silence people so that only the wealthy and those with resources can appeal these decisions. The Green Party should be ashamed of itself.

When the Green Party went into Government, some undoubtedly hoped it would mean the Government would take seriously the need to take on the big business polluters and to invest in green jobs. Instead, this week we have a Green Party Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport standing over a massive attack on intercity bus services and now another Green Party Minister of State is rushing through a forestry Bill that is being described as truly shocking by environmental organisations. It is clear how the Green Party is being used as a mudguard and these proposed changes for forestry are one more example of that.

I have a few points to make on amendments that might not be reached at all or if they are reached, unfortunately I will not be here because I have to go to the picket line of the Debenham's workers at The Square in Tallaght where there is an attempt to remove the stock. It is ironic because in justifying this legislation, the Government says it is introducing it to protect jobs but when jobs are actually under attack in the case of Debenhams, the Government has stood idly by.

The Minister should drop the proposal to give himself the power to impose whatever fees he likes. In my opinion, there is no need for such fees whatsoever. If the Government wants to truly support the principle of the Aarhus Convention of promoting public participation, the idea of fees should be completely scrapped and at the very least, the Government should support the various amendments that are proposed to restrict those fees.

I welcome the fact the Government was forced to drop the restriction on who could submit an appeal. It is a testament to the pressure that was brought to bear by various organisations and campaigners in the Environmental Pillar and beyond.

On jobs, there is much spin and bluster seeking to make out that environmentalists are against cutting down trees for timber or are out to make those working for the industry unemployed. Nothing could be further from the truth. The reality is that timber production can be done in an environmentally sustainable way and can be an important part of a socialist green new deal for Ireland. However, if the Government is relying on the for-profit motive and on big corporations to drive that, they will not do so in an environmentally sustainable way. When profits rule, it is inevitable that people's interests and the interests of the planet are put second and communities and biodiversity are sacrificed in the search for profits.

3:45 pm

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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We will be opposing this Bill for a number of reasons. First, the manner in which this Bill is being pushed through is a disgrace. Even at this point, we are scrambling around and trying to get our heads around huge numbers of amendments, which will never be debated and discussed in any event. All of those amendments have been collapsed into the Second Stage debate and the legislation will be rammed through in a way that makes a mockery of legislative scrutiny and the democratic process.

The fact the Green Party is a party to this is shocking beyond belief because I do not know how many times I heard members of the Green Party wax lyrical about the need for a sustainable forestry model and the critical importance of forestry in terms of climate change and biodiversity. Yet, it is assisting the bigger parties in the Government in ramming through this Bill, which will not address the huge crisis we face in a fundamentally dysfunctional forestry model and which could do significant damage.

Aside from almost anything that is in the Bill, the process is a disgrace. That is a good enough reason to oppose this Bill because we will not have time to properly scrutinise it. Then we must consider what the Bill is facilitating, namely, the propping up of a rotten, dysfunctional and environmentally damaging forestry model. This model is driven by profit and that does not even come close to reaching the economic and employment potential that a proper forestry model would have.

We are propping up a forestry model that is carrying out intense environmental damage. To give an indication of why I say that, in one day in 2019, some 824 separate felling licences were issued to clear 6,669 ha of public forest. Over the next three months, a further 345 more felling licences up to December 2019, covering a total of 9,527 ha of public forest were issued. Many of those might be subject to appeal. We should think about those figures. That is 15,000 ha of public forest that will be felled and that is just in the period of about half of last year. Many of those fellings could cause potentially significant environmental damage and be subject to appeal. Those figures are telling when one considers that we are planting about 4,000 ha of forest per year and for the most part, it is the wrong type of forest. In a short period of time, licences seeking to fell 15,000 ha were issued but we are only planting 4,000 ha.

The Irish National Council for Forest Research and Development, COFORD, has talked about us reaching our afforestation targets and getting from the abysmal level of forest cover, which has been mentioned a number of times, of 11% as against a European average of 30%, in a country that has the best conditions for growing trees anywhere in Europe and we have consistently gotten nowhere near those targets. When one adds together what I have just said and what we are planting against a push for accelerated harvesting, it is not surprising that the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, among others has expressed deep concern that we may be in a situation of net deforestation. We are going from an already bad situation to a worse situation, therefore.

I had some lobbying from some of my colleagues earlier who legitimately worry about the people who move the logs, the hauliers and so on, and those who participate in the work of cutting down trees or planting forests. Those concerns for employment and for people who earn their living from forestry are legitimate but I ask those colleagues to consider that in Wallonia, which is a quarter of the territory of Belgium, there is a timber industry worth €4.5 billion employing 18,000 people. In other words, in an area much smaller than this country, they have far more people employed in forestry and the revenue is far greater. There are 12,000 people employed in Irish forestry.

3:55 pm

Photo of Francis Noel DuffyFrancis Noel Duffy (Dublin South West, Green Party)
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The industry is worth €2.3 billion.

Photo of Richard Boyd BarrettRichard Boyd Barrett (Dún Laoghaire, People Before Profit Alliance)
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As I stated, in Wallonia it is worth €4.5 billion. We are massively underperforming in terms of the employment and revenue we could generate if we had a good and sustainable forestry model instead of the monocultural industrial forestry model that may result in net deforestation. As the model is largely based on one species of tree, it is quite damaging to soil and water. As it makes our forests more prone to disease and so on, it is a fundamentally unsustainable industry.

It may also be worth pointing out that this industry does not generate quality employment. For example, when Coillte was set up in 1989, there were 2,500 staff in the forest service but today there are 600, with half of those being administrative staff. The people getting jobs in forestry are often poorly paid. It can be immigrant labour with very insecure work that does not amount to a job at all. Bogus self-employment is rampant, with worker rights, pay and conditions subject to widespread abuse. It is not a sustainable or beneficial forestry model from an employment perspective, a macroeconomic perspective and a biodiversity perspective.

Against that background is the idea that we will try to restrict the right of people to object to planting or felling that is contributing to sustaining or propping up an unsustainable forestry model. That is not acceptable as far as I am concerned. We need a thoroughly independent review of the entire forestry sector rather than something that is trying essentially to cover the tracks of a failed policy.

If we did forestry right we could create thousands of new, decent and quality jobs. It could be a forestry model based on diverse forest species, native woodlands and tree species that would generate all sorts of knock-on industries from a different type of forestry. It is a shocking fact that in a country where we were once covered with native hardwood trees, there is almost no native hardwood industry at all and we import much of our hardwood. It is shocking when we have supreme conditions for growing quality hardwood trees but it is not the short-term profit model favoured by pension funds, sawmills and the big corporate interests who dominate Irish forestry. It would nevertheless have a genuine benefit on the environment, employment, the economy and real communities with ordinary working people. It would of course also contribute to addressing the climate and biodiversity crisis, as we must.

On this basis, we will oppose the Bill. We have tabled a number of amendments, most of which have been suggested by environmental groups, which should give the Green Party pause for thought in its support for the Bill. Those groups have described the Bill as shocking and the Green Party would have worked with these people closely. Perhaps its Deputies will explain why many of the people they have campaigned and worked with over many years believe this Bill to be retrograde and in need of being radically amended. It is not the legislation we need to develop an environmentally sustainable and genuinely economically beneficial forestry sector in this country.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Deputy Francis Noel Duffy is sharing his time with Deputies Aindrias Moynihan and Joe Carey.

Photo of Francis Noel DuffyFrancis Noel Duffy (Dublin South West, Green Party)
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Today Ireland has the fastest growing forestry sector in Europe. At the foundation of the State, there was less than 1% forest cover and today that figure is over 10%. Whereas past policies were in place to create rural employment, the current model is creating permanent cover and allowing biodiversity and recreational facilities for communities across the country.

Mr. William Bulfin wrote in 1907 that "the problem of deforestation is tragically eloquent of the evils of foreign rule in Ireland". We lost 90% of our natural forest cover and by 1923 our founding legislators inherited an exhausted forestry industry. In spite of this, and beginning from 1% cover, an afforestation programme planted 388 ha in that first year, accelerating to 10,000 ha in the 1960s and beyond.

Today through modest means we have restored our cover to over 10%. Seán MacBride's afforestation policies in the 1948 inter-party Government played a large role in this forestry restoration, meeting the coverage Ireland had some 400 years ago. Notwithstanding the approvals and environmental protocols that must be met when procuring Irish timber, the following are just some of the benefits coming from our forestry sector: there are 12,000 rural jobs working with a locally grown and sustainable construction material; forestry is a carbon sink, currently sequestering 312 million tonnes of carbon, while it also purifies water and prevents soil erosion; and trees can be a biofuel and they produce oxygen.

Education is paramount to secure and sustainable forestry. Dr. Annette Harte, a structural engineer from NUI Galway, has played a vital role with many other stakeholders in the research into the use of home-grown timber in the construction sector. Considering we have a multigenerational knowledge vacuum in the procurement of timber construction methodologies, her pioneering work is fundamental to the future of Irish forestry and its production of timber in the construction sector. There is a growing international movement to build sustainably, and the use of timber will meet the criteria of reducing embodied carbon in our built environment.

Countries all over the world are legislating with "wood first" policies in public procurement. South Dublin County Council was the first and only local authority to pass unanimously a "wood first" motion in 2017 with the intention of setting example and promoting the use of timber in the construction sector.

The State must ensure that the sector protects rural communities and the environment they live in. Modern policies are evolving, creating an holistic approach to our forestry and taking account of local jobs, amenities, biodiversity and climate. It is also of paramount importance that we create a more sustainable building sector where we can build sustainably and safely, learning from current international paradigms.

Photo of Aindrias MoynihanAindrias Moynihan (Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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This forestry Bill aims to speed up the appeals process that has been clogged for the past year and more. The position with delayed applications and appeals was allowed to fester by the previous Government and it really needs to be tackled so we can get planting and felling moving once again.

The supply of timber has been dwindling and jobs are very much at risk locally. For example, in Lissarda people have been put on a three-day week and many harvesters have been parked throughout the summer around me.

The vast bulk of farmers would plant less than 10 ha. They have been waiting for approval to plant and are very concerned that the season will slip away from them. I also draw the Minister of State's attention to the fact that planting is not equally distributed throughout the country. There are large tracts of plantations in many areas, such as north and west Cork. The Minister of State needs to look at ways to distribute planting much more widely across the country so the same areas are not planted more and more intensively.

Tá an Bille seo dírithe ar an gcóras achomhairc foraoise a fheabhsú. Tá an córas seo tar éis a bheith plódaithe le breis agus bliain anuas sa slí nach bhfuil beagnach aon cheadúnas á scaoileadh. D'fhág an Rialtas deireanach an phraiseach seo ina dhiaidh agus is maith an rud é go bhfuil an tAire Stáit ag dul i ngleic léi. Tá géarghá an córas ceadúnais seo a fheabhsú agus chun na ceadúnais seo a scaoileadh arís chun go mbeadh daoine ábalta crainn a chur agus a leagan. Toisc an easpa adhmaid, tá baol dífhostaíochta i mo cheantar. Feicimid i Lios Ardachaidh an tslí go bhfuil an obair ag laghdú ar dhaoine agus go bhfuil innealra fágtha díomhaoin ar feadh tamaill i rith an tsamhraidh. Anuas air sin, tá feirmeoirí ann atá ag feitheamh le ceadúnais chun crainn a chur. Go minic leis na feirmeoirí seo, is plásóg beag le thart ar 10 ha a bheadh ann de ghnáth. Tá siadsan ag faire ar an tslí go bhfuil an córas plódaithe agus an séasúr ag sleamhnú uathu. Is maith an rud é mar sin go bhfuil an tAire Stáit ag tabhairt ar aghaidh an feabhas seo.

Chomh maith leis sin, teastaíonn uaim díriú isteach ar an tslí go bhfuil na crainn seo go léir á gcur agus is minic go bhfuil seo dírithe isteach ar chúpla ceantar faoi leith. I mo cheantar i gCorcaigh Thiar Thuaidh, tá an-chuid plandáil ann le roinnt blianta anuas. Tá sé fíor-thábhachtach go mbeadh an deis ann crainn a chur i ngach ceantar ar fud na tíre agus nach mbeadh siad go léir brúite isteach sa cheantar céanna arís agus arís eile.

4:05 pm

Photo of Joe CareyJoe Carey (Clare, Fine Gael)
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According to the ancient Chinese proverb, the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago and the second best time is now. Tomorrow, the first Thursday in October, is Tetra Pak Tree Day. This Bill does not come a moment too soon. Forestry is a crop which needs to be planted and harvested in a timely manner. Our forestry industry is in crisis. The logjam in the licensing system and the appeals process is causing significant damage to the whole sector. This has dragged down the afforestation rate and put severe pressure on timber supplies. Those considering investing are turning away from forestry and towards other options because of the long delays in processing licences. The industry directly employs 12,000 people in rural Ireland and contributes €2.3 billion per annum to our economy. It also absorbs 3.8 million tonnes of CO2 every year. This is a significant carbon sink. If we do not increase our afforestation rate to at least 15,000 ha per annum, we will face increased fines for greenhouse gas emissions.

The forestry sector in County Clare is vibrant. Forestry makes an enormous contribution to Irish society, the Irish economy and our environment. One of the biggest concentrations of forestry in the country is in the Slieve Aughty Mountains in north-east Clare. Some 55,000 acres of significant forest are planted on public and private landholdings throughout County Clare. At present, some sawmills are having to resort to importing raw materials to survive. This crisis puts our entire forestry sector at risk of importing dangerous insects and infections such as the bark beetle. We are all aware of the damage that ash dieback has done to ash species in this country. There are several other issues which I would like to raise with the Minister of State, but due to time constraints I cannot do so. I ask her to bring her new forestry policy to this House and arrange a debate as soon as possible.

I will conclude with three short questions. Will the new regulations be published within days of the enactment of this Bill? How many additional staff will be recruited for the forestry appeals committee? Have these vacancies been advertised?

Photo of Réada CroninRéada Cronin (Kildare North, Sinn Fein)
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Seamus Heaney wrote "Some day I will go to Aarhus". After reading this Bill, many of us feel the need to follow him there. The appeals process outlined here, to which we in Sinn Féin have proposed many amendments, seems in many ways to be contrary to the Aarhus Convention's provisions on the citizen's access to justice. The appeals process outlined is unnecessarily closed, patriarchal and internally focused. It is exclusive instead of inclusive. It is a remnant of the old politics, carried out over the heads of the community rather than with its involvement. It is reminiscent of the afforestation which makes too many communities feel they live in the shadow of the forest rather than in its shelter. I do not say this to be negative. I am trying to be helpful. Sinn Féin wants to help. We want to get right the overall planting process and the appeals process which we are addressing today, and we can do so. If we work together on this we can achieve a much better result for forestry, communities and modern political and administrative transparency.

The cost of appeals alone is prohibitive. I know that the Minister of State will agree that a citizen's access to justice and appeal should never be reliant on capacity to pay. I make a special appeal to the Minister of State to exempt environmental NGOs from fees, particularly as many of these NGOs are home to members of her party, from whom I am sure she is hearing the same request. The right type of forestry has the capacity to transform our communities for the better, as does the right kind of appeals system. Trees that were grown well into the 21st century cannot be bound by a system of planning and licensing that did its best and worst work in the 20th century. We need more synergy here. We need a forestry appeals process that comes from a sense of collaborative flourishing, that gives to counties and communities rather than withholding from them. The appeals process in this Bill falls a long way short of what is needed. I urge the Minister of State to pay close attention to the amendments Sinn Féin has proposed and to do the right thing.

Photo of Seán CanneySeán Canney (Galway East, Independent)
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I will be sharing my time with Deputies Lowry, Shanahan and Verona Murphy.

I welcome this Bill. It is very necessary and I commend the speed with which the Minister of State has brought it forward in her short time in office. The forestry industry as we know it is in dire straits. I come from the constituency of Galway East, a rural area with a lot of forestry. We also have sawmills and a huge number of people employed in the construction industry. I have received a lot of correspondence from builders' providers, building contractors, sawmills and farmers about the stagnation of the forestry industry. The jobs created by the forestry industry are regional and local jobs. These jobs are under serious threat. Starting from today, there is a waiting time of years to get an appeals process under way. This Bill is to be welcomed for that reason. That said, once the legislation passes through the Dáil, action must be taken and the resources must be put in place to process the licence applications of those who wish to grow forests and those who wish to fell trees and build roads. We need to see forestry developed in a timely manner.

We need to put confidence back into the industry. We must ensure that we have continuity of supply such that people understand that when they are looking for timber, they will be able to get it. I know of a farmer who sold some of his cattle because he was going to plant part of his land. He is awaiting a licence to do so. He will miss the opportunity to plant it this year. He has no income from that land and, as he told me yesterday evening as he walked through it, it is going wild because he cannot do anything with it. That type of situation should not be tolerated.

On the other side of things, it is important that we ensure the appeals process is fair to those who wish to make appeals. We must also ensure that, whatever we do, we do not lose sight of the fact that people have a right to make a submission on any kind of planning application. However, that needs to be done in a way that is sustainable in order that people can still conduct their business and ensure the industry thrives, as it can and should.

I look forward to the new Minister of State bringing forward policy relating to afforestation. I visited County Leitrim last year to see first hand how over-intensification of forestry has nearly destroyed a county. As a Deputy stated earlier, we need to have balance. Life is a balancing act. The Minister will be charged with the objective of ensuring we have a balanced forestry industry which will be good for people. It will be good for workers, sawmills, the environment and the land. We need to ensure that the policies that are put in place, and the rules and regulations that are put around them, are balanced. There must be balance in terms of the number and type of trees that are grown and the locations in which they are grown such that they are spread across this lovely island. We must ensure that people who wish to object do so in a balanced way. That is what everybody is seeking.

I do not think there are barons involved in the forestry sector. The sawmills in my constituency and county and those in County Roscommon are family-run businesses. The haulage businesses are family run by people of farming stock. Those who cut down the trees are local people, as are those who sow the trees. This is a vital component in the regeneration of the rural and regional areas of Ireland. We must do it with the tools we have. Forestry is one of those tools and I am quite confident the Minister of State will use it to the best of her ability to ensure we have a balanced and growing forestry sector. We do not wish to import anything, particularly diseases from other countries.

4:15 pm

Photo of Matt ShanahanMatt Shanahan (Waterford, Independent)
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The south east is no stranger to the issues of forestry. It is a very important business sector for the south east. We have companies such as Medite in Clonmel and SmartPly in Waterford which provide MDF and cost-effective, environmentally friendly alternatives to tropical plywoods for use in structural and non-structural applications. Those two companies directly employ more than 320 workers and support more than 500 additional jobs indirectly. They also support downstream processes in Cork and Carlow, particularly sawmills. They operate in a highly sustainable way, purchasing timber from across the 26 counties. They use biomass from their processing waste to provide energy to the plant. Timber from the west of Ireland is ferried by rail network to Waterford, augmenting the Irish Rail freight business and its overall bottom line. They operate a low carbon footprint and a circular system in sustainability. They continue to innovate in their product mix to provide ever more durable and environmentally sustainable product lines and some of their pressed board has displaced traditional tropical plywood, given its superior insulation and strength qualities.

The forestry industry in Waterford and elsewhere in the south east is made up of vibrant indigenous manufacturers. These companies, along with their downstream processes, are committed to supporting a mix of sustainable afforestation in the region. That supports economic need, but it also dovetails with the social, community and amenity values of traditional forest and woodland areas. Like any manufacturing business sector, these business entities depend on a secure pipeline of raw materials of the required standard and grade. They need to be able to access timber of the required quality to continue to produce the high value product on which customers rely.

I welcome the Bill and hope that it will lead to the forestry appeals committee being resourced to be efficient, provide for the streamlining of appeals for felling and planting and for the protection of roads and support the issues relating to replanting, which has become very difficult and uneconomic. I hope it will provide industry supply chain visibility, the lack of which is an impediment to commercial growth and economic development. In essence, I hope it will make the system significantly more efficient and transparent and enable the planting of the right trees in the right areas, as well as building a vibrant timber sector, protecting rural jobs and the economy and providing operational clarity on the appeals committee. Ultimately, it must result in an increased number of felling and planting licences. I hope we will see an economic dividend in the future forest policy and that it will integrate closely with the climate policy espoused by the Government.

Photo of Verona MurphyVerona Murphy (Wexford, Independent)
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The timber industry is a significant indigenous economic sector, with 11% of lands currently under forestry. The aim is to increase that percentage to 18%. That growth is significant and needs a proper legislative framework in place to support it.

The forest industry transport group was formed in 1999 and reflects the significance of transport in the sector. There are 97,600 movements annually, or approximately 390 haulage movements per day. The forest industry transport group was formed to facilitate communication on matters relating to timber transport. Very detailed guidelines were drawn up to advise on all matters relating to forestry transport. The guide aimed to develop a partnership approach for the management of round timber transport to ensure the activities are carried out in an environmentally sustainable and economically viable manner. It also assists local authority roads managers, timber haulage managers, forest owners and agents on how to resolve timber transport issues.

Forests are mainly located on roads that have not been strengthened. It is frequently a challenge left to the haulier or transport operator to survey the roads and adapt equipment to suit the terrain. This can mean significant cost for the hauliers, usually involving expensive equipment adaptions to ensure maximum weights are carried with minimum impact on the roads. Round timber is a relatively low-value, high-volume product. The transport costs can form a significant portion of the delivery costs of round timber, often accounting for as much as 40%. Vehicle specifications for forestry are often the most expensive to purchase due to the demands incurred as a result of the on-road and off-road terrain. Specification demands include onboard weighing units, vehicle tracking units, centre tyre inflation and maxi-wide tyres, etc. These add significantly to all the other requirements. Many of the vehicles need special permits to operate on public roads. All of this expense comes on top of what are regarded as normal costs, such as a haulage licence, insurance, vehicle testing and driver training to name just a few. All the aforementioned expense equates to the huge operating costs of round timber haulage.

The operators are an integral part of the sector and they are also part of the outrageous situation that has been allowed to develop due to the delay in issuing felling licences. At no juncture has any thought been given to the financial strife caused to timber hauliers as a consequence of the collapse of the forestry industry. Why would it be considered necessary to go to such lengths to set up a forest industry transport group to deal with a situation in which they are all but forgotten? I would like the Minister of State and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to consider that when they are looking at the number of appeals building and building, with the prospect that felling will diminish to the point that there will be no work for these hauliers. They should consider that a combined outfit on a felling operation includes a harvester costing circa €500,000, a forwarder which will stack the timber and costs circa €400,000 and a truck and trailer at a minimum reserve circa €250,000. That is more than €1.1 million of equipment that must be purchased before a tree is felled and which will be left sitting idle. I ask the Minister of State to please consider the hauliers who are financially strained to the pin of their collar. Anyone with that much skin in the game understands the necessity of the "relevant person" aspect of this legislation. Anyone listening to these proceedings will understand that too. Given the impact on all those involved in the sector, I ask the Minister of State please to accept and support the amendment that has been tabled to the section of the Bill dealing with relevant persons.

4:25 pm

Photo of Michael LowryMichael Lowry (Tipperary, Independent)
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First, I welcome the fact this legislation has been fast-tracked in response to the numerous representations that have been made to public representatives, particularly those who represent rural constituencies. I hope the Minister of State will look seriously at and accept the amendments that have been put down by the Rural Independent Group because they are put forward with a view to strengthening the legislation and giving greater protection to those in the industry.

It saddened me to read some time ago where managing directors of several top sawmills in Ireland stated publicly that the only reason they had not run out of logs was because of the unexpected consequences of lockdowns. Because of the shutdown of builders' merchants and building sites, these sawmills managed to remain open. Otherwise, their stocks would have run out and their sawmills would have since been closed.

The forestry industry in Ireland is in crisis. Indeed, it may be more correct to say that it has gone beyond crisis point at this time. What makes this crisis all the more frustrating and worrying for those involved in every sector of the industry is that it is a home-grown crisis that needs a home-grown solution. We have now gone beyond the eleventh hour and are fast approaching the finish line for this industry if action is not taken immediately.

Since the introduction of new forestry licensing procedures in 2019, the processing and issuing of forestry licences have been seriously impacted leading to widespread disruption across the sector. Currently, felling licence approvals are only at 25% of the required rate. Consequently, the industry is being starved of necessary supplies. The potential impact is severe, both financially and with respect to jobs, as sawmills will run out of logs within a frighteningly short time unless the current impasse is resolved as a matter of urgency.

This directly threatens jobs in my constituency of Tipperary. The management of Medite was on to explain the position. It has 150 employees producing MDF panels for use in construction projects, furniture and many other essential applications in Ireland and around the world. These jobs are vital to Tipperary.

It beggars belief that a central part of the licensing process, the forestry appeals committee, has caused significant difficulties. At present, there are roughly 400 outstanding projects appealed but not yet processed, including planting, felling and roads. This cannot be tolerated. Over the space of one week in early August, objectors stalled the production of 100,000 cu. m of timber, enough timber to build 5,000 homes. At the present rate at which appeals are being processed, it will take 15 months to clear the backlog and the rate of new appeals continues to grow. Resolving this is gone beyond urgent. This industry makes a €2.3 billion contribution to the Irish economy and supports 12,000 jobs. Keeping it running is all the more crucial as the economic fallout from the ongoing pandemic continues.

It is also worth noting that the vast majority of appeals are lodged by a handful of individuals and target forestry policy generally rather than any specific project. This issue is severely undermining a fast-growing green industry which provides rural jobs, contributes to climate action, facilitates tourism and recreation and produces technologically advanced timber and biofuel products.

The current impasse is having wide-reaching consequences. Farmers in Tipperary and across the country are unable to clear and free up their land. They cannot harvest the trees. As they have invested over the past few decades, they are losing out on millions of euro in valuable income in their farm enterprises.

This impasse threatens to cause problems and disruption to the country's pallet manufacturing sector. This, in turn, will affect exports, the house building sector and the price of housing as well as the hardware stores through the need to import foreign timber. This importation of foreign timber exposes Ireland to the risk of infestation of damaging bark beetles that may take years to eradicate.

It is unconscionable that delays in dealing with hundreds of indiscriminate appeals that have the potential to destroy a valuable and indigenous industry and cause widespread redundancies across the industry have not been addressed as a matter of urgency before now. In fact, for those impacted, it is an unforgivable delay. This situation should never have reached the point where individuals and groups can hold an entire industry to ransom. A situation like this must never be allowed to happen again. That is why strong legislation is required now to ensure something like this can never reoccur in Ireland again.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Is there anybody else from the regional group? No. Now we go to the Government slot. Deputy Cahill is sharing time with Deputies Michael Moynihan and Niamh Smyth.

Photo of Jackie CahillJackie Cahill (Tipperary, Fianna Fail)
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This appeal Bill is long overdue. The industry is in an absolute crisis. It is unacceptable that mounting issues discussed here today and the ones I will touch on shortly have been allowed to develop to this level of crisis.

The forestry industry will not even hit 2,000 hectares of planting this year. This is less than a quarter of the envisaged targets that we need. Nurseries, timber contractors, planters - the entire industry - are in agreement that forestry works are in a state of complete and utter stagnation. This is having a massive negative impact on our environment, our economy and our jobs.

From having spoken to many in the industry affected by these mounting issues as well as my own understanding of how forestry must operate in this country, I do not believe that this Bill will solve all the issues in order to get the industry operational again. All this Bill will do is fill a pothole when the entire road needs to be resurfaced. It is a start in getting the forestry licensing process into order, but it is only a start. Much more action must be taken on top of this.

Bureaucracy, red tape and a complete disconnect from stakeholders has become the norm in the past number of years. The people on the ground who know how this industry operates are not being listened to. There are individuals facing these constant bureaucratic hurdles and this Bill will not facilitate them in getting their industry operating again.

I welcome the Bill and I will speak again later on Committee Stage. It is a start and, hopefully, it will speed up the appeals process and get the appeals dealt with much faster. However, the licensing structure that is operating in forestry at present is dysfunctional and it needs to be addressed urgently.

Photo of Michael MoynihanMichael Moynihan (Cork North West, Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Bill.

The appeals of forestry licences have been allowed to stifle an industry. We have had a lengthy discussion on afforestation and the need for forestry etc. but serial objectors have brought this industry to its knees. As a society, we must look at the damage that has been done to the forestry industry. We must look at the challenges within the forestry industry.

This Bill is the first step in making sure that many issues that had been allowed to develop over the years are ironed out. This is the first step on it and there are many more steps to be taken.

We must look at the experience of this industry. It has been stifled and brought to its knees, as I stated earlier.

We also must look at serial objectors in relation to other planning issues right across the country. We must be bold. We must say enough is enough and that they should not have the authority to do this. We must look meaningfully at how our planning laws are interpreted and practised because the challenges that are out there are grave.

This Bill is to be welcomed, but we must look at forestry in the round. We must look at the new issues - the issues that have been discussed. I hope to discuss it later tonight on Committee Stage.

There are many issues in forestry. We have brought it to its knees. Many people who have considerable skin in the game have been tied up. It is necessary that we move forward with this legislation as a matter of urgency and more to follow to ensure that we have a proper functioning industry.

4:35 pm

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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We continue with Deputy Ó Murchú. Níl sé anseo. In that case, we will go to the Rural Independent Group. Deputy Mattie McGrath is sharing with Deputies Michael Collins, O'Donoghue, Nolan, Danny Healy-Rae and Michael Healy-Rae.

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
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Is my name not there?

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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No, but there is a Sinn Féin slot available.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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I think Deputy Crowe was to replace Deputy Ó Murchú.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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Please go ahead, Deputy Crowe.

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
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The former Minister, Deputy Creed, spoke in terms of this being a temporary and unavoidable setback. Most of us here would agree that it is an issue which is not going away. Whatever legislation is put forward, good or bad, is useless without resources. The industry employs 12,000 people, mostly in rural areas. It is worth €2.3 billion. It highlights the Government's lack of understanding of rural Ireland. It does not get it and does not have a plan.

We need to look at what can be done to try to resolve the crisis in forestry. Many sawmills are coming to a standstill because of what is happening. As someone who comes from an urban background, I am often told that I do not know much about forestry, but my constituency is surrounded by forest. The Minister noted the role that urban representatives can play around forestry. We can encourage more plantation in our parks and there is the concept of the stepping stone forest which is good for ecosystems and helps to harmonise our environment. That is something the Minister could look at outside this legislation. We need to start doing things differently.

Irish forestry policy is in dire need of an overhaul. Sitka spruce, a non-native species, is the most commercially profitable species and is planted across the State, often making up 100% of plantations. That should not happen. Their canopy blocks out all sunlight and creates a monoculture with no birds or wildlife to be found. Current afforestation policy aims to plant 30% broadleaf trees to address this. I would argue that proportion ought to be increased. I appreciate there is a commercial necessity to plant Sitka spruce but we are turning hundreds of hillsides and acres of land here into barren wastelands.

Many Irish growers of healthy saplings have been forced to shred thousands of good planting trees because of a lack of demand. It is criminal we are allowing this to happen. We need someone to act as an advocate and stop this. It is crazy that healthy trees are being destroyed because there is nowhere to plant them, considering the impact they could have on our environment and our carbon footprint. Ireland has an opportunity to plant thousands or even millions of trees. The impact this would have on our carbon footprint alone is worthy of pursuit. While this Bill does not seek to change forestry policy, it is a conversation that needs to be had.

The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine in the previous Government seemed to think that reforming the appeals process was not worth his attention. Now we are forced to introduce emergency legislation.

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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I thank the Deputy. Deputy Mattie McGrath is next and sharing with the colleagues I named earlier.

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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I wish the Minister of State well in her new portfolio. As others have said, the Minister in the last Government, Deputy Creed, ignored everything to do with agriculture and rural Ireland. He would not deal with the beef barons and other issues. This legislation is an effort but it is feeble and a little inept. We have tabled many amendments to try to strengthen the Bill, and I thank Brian in our office for putting them together. I hope the Minister of State will not reject amendments that are well meant, as she did in the Seanad. We understand rural Ireland. We are all from rural Ireland. I am not being anti-Dublin. We have no issue with Dublin people. As Deputy Crowe said, there should be more planting in parks. Beyond that there is a huge housing crisis. I hear Deputy Boyd Barrett and everyone else talking about that every day, but we do not have the timber to roof the houses. We are importing it from Russia and other places. It is shocking.

I salute Medite in Clonmel and Smartply in Waterford for their excellent skills and the employment they provide, as well as the excellent use they make of the finished product. They have come on in leaps and bounds. Pat Beardmore is the manager in the Medite plant. They provide 300 jobs between them. At the moment, the sector is grinding to a halt - it is below its knees - because of objections. The Department must take some responsibility because it has not dealt with it fast enough. As I said yesterday, the tree huggers started objecting, often from hundreds of miles away. I have no problem with planning, whether it is planning for a hen house or a Georgian building, because there has to be a process and a right of objection where someone is materially affected with light, roads or anything else, but people hundreds of miles away do not have a right to object and hold up progress. It is shocking. There are farmers who planted forests 45 years ago as a pension scheme. Some of them got grants to do it and some of them planted good land, which is a shame, but they played their part. Now it is ready to harvest and they are not allowed to cut it. They are being held up for two years.

Some forestry contractors have equipment worth €2 million. They were encouraged to buy it because a far greater output was expected. We are only at a quarter of the output we should be producing. Then there are the hauliers and the many sawmills. I salute Sheehans in Burncourt, O'Gradys in Hollyford and indeed Drohan sawmills in Clonmel, named after the late Frank Drohan, a freedom fighter, which is now run by Junior Pollard. There are many sawmills, and I have only mentioned a few. They give employment and are a source of joy especially at this time of year as people order their Santa cribs and playhouses and other goods for Christmas. They supply an urban market as well as a rural one.

This is now complete chaos. The last Fine Gael Government and its Minister, supported by Fianna Fáil under the confidence and supply agreement, forgot completely about rural Ireland. One would think none of them lived there. They abandoned rural Ireland across a plethora of issues, as did successive Governments over the last 15 years. However, this is a crisis. We talk about the environment, emissions and what new planting can do but all these people want to do is harvest their crops. They will be getting contractors in soon and then they can plant anew - and they can look at planting different types of trees - but they cannot cut them. What other section of society would put up with not being allowed to have their harvest? We saw what happened with Keelings, which brought people in from abroad in the middle of the Covid lockdown to do its harvest. We have seen supports for the harvest of corn in different years. If the harvest is rich the labours are few. If there is no harvest, industry has nothing. They are being denied all that. It is time that the serial objectors are stopped.

It is worth €2.3 billion to the economy, mostly the rural economy. I have seen how the forestry sector can build roads better than most county councils, to be fair to them, and could teach the councils a thing or two and they have drainage systems that are impeccable.

We need to look after the jobs, the farmers and the contractors. These are people who have made huge investments, including in machinery and trucks. The sawmills have upgraded their machinery to make the final product for building houses and roofs. I am doing a renovation myself and the builder has had great difficulty in getting timber. How are we to build houses if we do not have the materials? We have the cart put before the horse. I need honesty, integrity and openness with this legislation. We need a review mechanism that will allow us to see how it is working after six months. This cannot come fast enough to allow these people to breathe. Some of them have sick siblings or spouses, and they want to pay their pension scheme. We should remember that these farming and business people are denied the fair deal. We cannot be kicked all the time because we need to be allowed to live. We will generate the work, employ people and improve the economy.

Photo of Michael CollinsMichael Collins (Cork South West, Independent)
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I wish the Minister of State the very best in her new position. Some 12,000 jobs are at risk, all in rural Ireland.

Forestry and timber are critical for anyone who cares about rural development and rural jobs. There are 500 jobs on the line in GP Wood in Enniskeane and its associated companies, where hours are being reduced next month. Forestry is an industry worth €2.3 billion. The industry estimates that 2 million tonnes of timber are held up in appeals and the licensing application process in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. That is enough timber to build 100,000 houses. Timber shortages are close at hand. There will be an immediate problem for Ireland's house building programme when timber starts to run short. Imports are expensive and difficult to come by, with strong demand for timber worldwide. GP Wood has managed to source some supplies, which will start arriving next month, but doing so goes against everything GP Wood stands for - shipping across Europe, the environmental impact and supporting jobs outside Ireland.

The appeals debacle is holding up many afforestation projects. Farmers are the collateral damage. They are stuck in the middle because they cannot plant or harvest. The Government, including the Green Party, cannot hit its tree planting targets during this situation. The delays are killing the tree planting programme, with only 2,500 ha to be planted this year even though the Government's target is 8,000 ha per annum. The impact on our climate change goals is significant. Tree planting is a key weapon in the fight against climate change. The difference will be millions of tonnes of CO2 left in the atmosphere because trees have not been planted to soak it up.

We need to be using more wood. The way to get it is to plant our own forests and stimulate more wood usage in our built environment.

It is critical that the forestry appeals committee, FAC, legislation be implemented quickly and backed up by resources. The Department must be ready and able to implement the reforms contained in the Bill immediately upon its approval by the Oireachtas. There can be no delays in making that happen. Will the Minister of State assure us that it is under way and will be in place in the coming days? The fee is a critical aspect and must be introduced immediately. The Minister must ensure that all necessary resources are in place in the FAC to make the reforms work. The legislation is no good unless people are hired to enable an increase in the FAC's output. We understand that the FAC is in the process of hiring additional personnel. It is critical that this happen immediately and that the numbers are sufficient. An extra ten people are needed. The FAC should target getting through at least 20 appeals per week instead of the current 20 appeals per month.

The concept of the FAC meeting in division is critical. Running multiple divisions in parallel will achieve the necessary throughput. The other important reform is the removal of an automatic right to an oral hearing. The FAC should decide that oral hearings are only required in a small minority of cases.

In the longer term, we need to move away from this forestry licensing system and change the regulatory model. It should not be necessary to apply for a new licence at each stage of the process. Doing so is a waste of time and resources and inhibits the sector's development. In other countries, there is a greater reliance on forestry management plans that are approved, implemented and monitored. It is a much more efficient system.

Our Department has failed the industry badly. The industry is coming through the Covid-19 crisis well, yet it is being damaged by our own failure to provide an adequate regulatory platform. Without the right platform, the industry cannot grow and prosper. Like many colleagues, I am disgusted to think that people as far away as Dublin can object to a forestry being felled in west Cork even though they do not know what they are on about or where the place even is. There must be some kind of reform to stop that happening, and I hope that our amendments to that effect will be accepted.

4:45 pm

Photo of Richard O'DonoghueRichard O'Donoghue (Limerick County, Independent)
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I congratulate the Minister of State on her new position.

We have all seen the statistics. Rural Ireland has been forgotten about. Not only have Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the Green Party and Sinn Féin now learned this through Covid, but they are all roaring "Rural Ireland". Since the Government's formation, 83% of those Members have mentioned rural Ireland in their contributions. Before the Government's formation, no one mentioned rural Ireland except the Independents and one or two other parties in the Dáil. All Governments have forgotten about rural Ireland. Now, Covid has told the Members in question that rural Ireland is what has been putting food on their tables. They need to listen to us because we have the experience.

The Bill is completely out of date. My constituency office is inundated with people who are frustrated at being unable to source timber. Timber is needed for building new houses and extensions, farm improvements, maintenance and many other projects. Hardware stores and building providers are unable to purchase timber from their suppliers. In fact, people are now ordering timber 12 weeks before they undertake projects.

The Bill's aim is to make the forestry appeals system more efficient and reduce the FAC's backlog of appeals. Licences need to be issued in order to plant and harvest trees and build roads. There is a backlog of 1,850 applications with the forest service, of which only 25% are currently being processed. Some 12,000 jobs are at risk in the forest industry. The FAC is being deliberately swamped by appeals, which is creating a large backlog. Everyone has a right to appeal, which is welcome in a democracy, but most of these appeals are being lodged by a small handful of individuals who are deliberately targeting the forestry appeals system as opposed to local projects.

This issue severely undermines the issues of climate action, tourism, recreation and biofuel. The forestry industry is worth €2.3 billion to the economy. We are importing timber from Norway, Sweden, Russia and Scotland.

This situation needs to be changed, serial objectors need to be stopped and the Government needs to listen to the people of rural Ireland because we know what we are talking about.

Photo of Carol NolanCarol Nolan (Laois-Offaly, Independent)
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I welcome the opportunity to contribute on this important matter. I have consistently highlighted it through the tabling of a Topical Issue matter last year and many parliamentary questions. I am a Deputy from Laois-Offaly, where forestry is a large sector that creates considerable employment and supports our rural and, indeed, regional economies. I have been in contact with many frustrated employers, forestry workers and farmers who want this issue sorted. It has gone on for too long, and we must ensure that we have a robust system in place.

Clearly, this is a major sector and anything that happens within it that destabilises the internal licensing process will have serious and detrimental side effects. I was dismayed to hear that the "relevant person" provision in the Bill might have been removed. That is shocking. This provision would prevent continual objections from people who live 300 miles away and do not know anything about rural Ireland or the rural economy. If it is the case that it has been removed, then we will need to insert a similar safeguard to ensure that the chaos being caused in the forestry sector by objections does not recur. Those objections have become ludicrous. There are too many. At the current rate at which appeals are being processed, it will take 16 months to clear the backlog. In one day in early August, objectors stalled the production of 100,000 cu. m of timber, enough to build 5,000 homes. This issue will affect the construction sector significantly if it is not sorted out and robust safeguards are not put in place.

It is worth noting that the majority of appeals are lodged by a small handful of individuals who target forestry policy generally rather than any specific project. I am calling for something to be done in this regard. We accept that people have the right to appeal, but we do not accept that they have the right to disrupt and obstruct people in their work. It stands that this could damage the rural economy. Currently, 12,000 jobs are at serious risk.

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I wish the Minister of State good luck in her new role.

Section 7(3) of the Bill contains the commencement provision. This means that, before the Bill can have any impact, the Minister needs to make a commencement order. Sometimes, an Act is commenced all in one go, but it is quite common for an Act to be commenced on a phased basis, in other words, in dribs and drabs. A delay to the commencement of this legislation is the last thing that the industry needs at present.

The enactment would not be an end in itself, only the beginning, because a number of issues need to be addressed immediately. First, once the Bill has been enacted, the Minister needs to move immediately to bring it fully into force. Second, there needs to be a speedy appointment of appeals officers to the FAC. Third, the FAC needs to organise itself into divisions quickly. Fourth, progress on reducing the volume of appeals currently before the FAC needs to be made quickly.

Fifth, we need to see the introduction of an appeals fee under the new section 14F of the 2001 Act, as inserted by section 4 of the Bill. As everybody knows, serious fees must be applied to prevent the whole practice of misusing the appeals system.

It is quite clear that the existing appeals process has indeed been misused. There is no doubt about that, as I highlighted two weeks ago during my speaking time on Leaders' Questions. It is important that the FAC be able to function effectively. All too often, the appeals process has been used by appellants for purposes that are not directly linked to what is happening in a particular forest. The provisions in the new section 14B of the 2001 Act, as inserted by section 4 of the Bill, would introduce a requirement for an appellant to set out very clearly the grounds on which his or her appeal is based, spell out the link between the grounds of appeal being stated by the appellant and the licensing decision that is being appealed, and set out precisely what his or her interest is in making an appeal in the first instance.

My colleagues and I in the Rural Independent Group have worked diligently to set out the amendments we feel need to be made to the Bill. I hope they will be looked at in a sensible, intelligent and fair way and that they will, if at all possible, be accepted. They are brought forward on behalf of forest owners, hauliers, timber dealers, millers and the end users of forestry, who include the hardware store owners who sell timber and the builders, farmers and other people who buy it. It is totally ridiculous that at a time when we are talking about reducing our carbon footprint, we have farmers producing timber in Ireland who cannot sell it or get it to the mills and, at the same time, timber is bring brought into the country from as far away as Russia. Ireland is a country that can grow timber better, faster and quicker than it can be done elsewhere but we are importing it from Russia. It does not make any sense. I plead with the Minister to take our amendments into account.

4:55 pm

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I am glad to have the opportunity to discuss this very important topic. I know only too well what has gone on with forestry in the past two years. It is the total height of blackguarding. I have raised this issue several times on the Order of Business and at every chance I got over the past couple of years. I could see what is happening coming. We are very near to a situation where the sawmills will close, the hauliers will stop working, the harvesters of the forests will have nothing to do and the planters will have no ground to plant on. What is going on is the height of blackguarding. People are appealing from as far away as 200 miles, with no connection at all to forestry or to the felling licence they are appealing against.

What happened in the first place is that farmers and Coillte planted marginal lands and got grants to do so from the Government of the day, which was proper and right. It was marginal land that was fit for nothing else. This had the effect of creating income for the State and for the landowners and the lands were replanted. However, the whole thing has been at a standstill for the past two years and it is now coming to a head. If action is not taken, 1,200 jobs will be lost and €2 billion could be taken out of the economy. When I am in Kilgarvan, all the lorries are travelling westwards, bringing products that are costing people money. The only lorries I see going eastwards are the forestry lorries, which are creating an income for people, and the fish lorries, which we talked about last night. There are also farmers taking cattle from the Kenmare mart through the town and eastwards. If we are not careful, we will lose the forestry industry because farmers will have to decide, before planting land again, whether they will be able to fell it. They have to put up with all the nuisances such as deer, badgers and foxes that are coming out of this forestry but they cannot cut it down and realise the income to which they are rightly entitled. There are places like Clondrohid, Enniskeane, Palfab Limited, Grainger's in Clonmel and MEDITE in Clonmel, all of which could close down. All the lorries we see on the roads taking the timber to the sawmills will be no more.

I am appealing to the Minister not to rush the Bill through and to take our amendments into account. We must be sure the legislation is adequate to deal with the blackguarding that is going on. I get very hurt and annoyed when I hear Dublin Deputies interfering and meddling in something they know nothing at all about. I appeal to the Minister to take our amendments on board.

Photo of Marian HarkinMarian Harkin (Sligo-Leitrim, Independent)
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I wish the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, well on presenting her first Bill to the Dáil. As I am sure she is well aware, the whole area of forestry is one fraught with difficulties at many different levels. In my view, the major contributory factor to the current difficulties is that we do not have a proper forestry policy. We have generous tax-free incentives and grants, so much so that we had to apply to the European Commission for permission to offer them under the state aid rules. It was the Commission which insisted that 30% of the planting should be of native trees. However, in Ireland, we follow the money, not the policy, and that always means some people are discriminated against while others are advantaged.

I represent Sligo, Leitrim, south Donegal and north Roscommon, where forestry is a very contentious issue, especially in Leitrim. We have a situation where forestry grants have increased the price of land out of the reach of local farmers, who cannot afford to buy it for agricultural use and must watch it passing over to others, many of whom are not from the county. Indeed, no bank in Leitrim would give money to a farmer to purchase land for agricultural purposes because the price is artificially high. In many instances, local people are being pushed out of their own home place while the Sitka marches across the county consuming townlands and parishes in its path. Leitrim has the highest percentage of planting in Ireland, at 30%, much of it Sitka. Instead of promoting agroforestry and native species, instead of ensuring we have a proper spatial forestry plan, instead of engaging farmers and communities in the process, we have thrown money at the issue. That is one of the main reasons we are where we are today. We are also here because when we transposed the environmental impact assessment directive, we did not put in place the structures, supports and resources necessary to ensure its implementation. There is nothing new in that. We have a proud tradition in Ireland of doing that type of thing.

This Bill is a reasonable attempt at dealing with the logjam of appeals. It ensures a right of appeal for people, and I support the Minister of State in that. I have submitted a few amendments, the most important of which proposes that the persons appointed to the FAC have the knowledge, experience and requisite skills to deal with appeals in an efficient, timely and fair manner. The process needs to be speeded up because sawmills and timber-processing enterprises are on their knees. We are importing timber from countries that have the same regulations in place as we do. That is just crazy. When the Bill is passed, there must be an immediate start on drawing up and implementing a forestry policy. I look forward to co-operating with the Minister of State in that regard.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I do not know whether the Minister of State did it deliberately or inadvertently but this Bill has fed into the narrative about serial objectors. The reckless comments from certain Deputies today in this regard are unacceptable. There is absolutely no evidence presented to us in the Dáil that serial objectors are a problem. The irony is not lost on me that the day the Minister of State published this Bill was the same day the Supreme Court published its judgment in favour of Friends of the Irish Environment and quashing the climate mitigation plan.

I represent Galway West. It is a rural community with the city also. I am completely behind a sustainable industry. The Government commissioned Jim Mackinnon CBE, to review the forestry licence process. He reported back in 2019 and his report has not been mentioned by the Minister in her speech or by a single Deputy here today. Mackinnon said in his report: "If these principles are put into practice, this should go a considerable way to creating a vibrant, confident and sustainable forestry industry which enjoys support, not just across the sector, but from community and environmental groups who can benefit and take pleasure from a more diverse woodland cover in Ireland." I fully support that. This is the expert who was commissioned by the last Government. In addition, we have declared a biodiversity emergency and a climate emergency. Mackinnon, who was commissioned, set out for us the issues, then set out the recommendations and then set out the steps forward, with two steps forward. Time precludes me from going into the details but there is specific onus on the Government to do something, to have a meeting by March 2020, and that the forestry programme implementation group would be the forum in which to push the programme ahead, with a second one.

On the issues raised on the report, none of them had to do with serial objectors. In a week where we have listened to demands from the media, which I agree with, that a report should be based on facts, and when last night we had the most despicable so-called debate between the President of the United States of America and hopefully the future President of the United States of America, then it is difficult that in this instance facts do not appear to come into it. Inadvertently, we are doing the same in this Dáil.

We need a vibrant forestry industry. I am acutely aware of the value of this to rural areas. I am acutely aware that 12,000 jobs are involved and if we were doing it right there should be a lot more.

The Minister, Senator Hackett, came to the House yesterday with her speech and failed to mention Mackinnon. I do not wish to be personal in any way. I appeal to her as Green Party Minister to show leadership and not to get entrapped with the Department, which is really under pressure. I am not saying it is under pressure; the Mackinnon report says it is under pressure. Let us consider what Mackinnon identified as problematic. He said: "Significant hurdles remain if the Irish Government's planting target is to be met [and that the] perceived lack of political priority given to forestry is a major concern." I repeat again there is a lack of political commitment and priority. The report also said that there is an overarching need for a statement on the Government's policy on forestry and that forestry should not be the "sole preserve" of one Department. Of the Department, Mackinnon said: "Low morale has become endemic and more resources, along with improvements to iFORIS, could help restore this". The report recommends additional inspectors and said that inspectors feel isolated and not sufficiently supported, that concerns of many Inspectors over increasing and more complex workload are accepted and that perceived complexities over compliance with the Habitats Directive were consistently raised. It was also noted that there were not enough pre-planning meetings, there were inadequate applications by those putting in an application and on many occasions the applications were not sufficient. The list goes on and on. Mackinnon recommended better consultation, pre-planning meetings and so on.

The Minister then comes to the House with a Bill that feeds into a narrative that objectors are the cause when repeatedly Governments have failed to put in resources to help those in the Department to do the job properly and have failed to have any feedback or to work on feedback to provide sufficient training. The Minister comes to the Dáil with that Bill and reduces public participation in the guise of improving the system. That is completely and utterly false. I have a great difficulty with that in the week that is in it. Tomorrow is plant a tree day. We will tell children and schools of the State to plant a tree. In 120 years we have gone from 2% to 11%. That is some progress is it not: 9% in 120 years.

We have set up a system that is geared to fail and when it fails we do not look at why it fails; we blame people who put in submissions. On what do we base this? There are no figures in the Minister's speech and no figures from any Deputy who spoke here today who referred to serial objectors. I understand the appeals are as low as 1%. There are different types of appeal, which the Minister would know better than I. There are appeals with regard to afforestation, felling or aerial spraying, for example. There has been no breakdown or analysis whatsoever.

At this point I ask the Minister to walk out of her imprisonment in the Department. Let us help the Department to do its job right. I cannot think of any better way to put it than to say the Minister cannot see the forest for the trees in this situation. The Government is blaming the wrong people. I ask that the Minister goes back to the Supreme Court judgment. I welcome that Friends of the Irish Environment had the courage to take the Government to court to get the mitigation plan quashed. Repeatedly the Supreme Court, the High Court and all the other courts have pointed to the importance of the trinity in planning laws: the authority, the developer and the public. Without the public we would have absolutely no declaration of climate change and no recognition of biodiversity. For the Minister to stand here is doubly duplicitous and it is disingenuous to allow the blame fall on objectors. I ask the Minister to correct that in her statement. I ask her to stand up to Deputies who are taking the easy way. I am standing up for my rural area and I believe in a vibrant and sustainable woodland forestry policy.

I ask the Minister to read the Mackinnon report to see what he said in his 21 issues, 26 recommendations and the two steps forward. Only one point in the report relates to introducing fees. It is also disingenuous to say the Bill is aligning with the planning process. Planning has a whole set of laws and an independent appeals board. The Minister is not doing that here.

5:05 pm

Photo of Michael McNamaraMichael McNamara (Clare, Independent)
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Like a number of previous speakers, the constituency I represent has quite a lot of forestry. I believe that Clare is one of the most afforested counties given the proportion of the county and the size of forestry there. I have invited the Minister to my home town of Scarriff to see Sliabh Aughty, to which I have not yet received a reply. I look forward to the courtesy of a reply. One can travel from Scarriff to Gort, which is about 25 miles give or take, and from Gort over to Loughrea which is another 25 miles, and back to Scarriff, and one sees mainly forestry. I was in Cappaghabaun recently, which is a townland at the foothills of Sliabh Aughty, about which is a huge plantation. A farmer said to me one could go from there to Gort and not see a single person. There is lots of forestry but that forestry is dead. There is no life in that forestry. Yes it is a cash product and yes that product does need to be harvested at some point, but we also need to ensure that never again will we have tracts of land planted like that for very little benefit to anybody who lives nearby.

There was once a chipboard factory in Scarriff. It ceased production in December 2010 and pulled out completely shortly thereafter. Notwithstanding having this huge amount of forestry on our doorstep, almost no benefit accrues to the local community. Coillte owns a large amount of it, some is privately owned, but in any event very little benefit accrues to the local community. It is not surprising in those circumstances that people would object to afforestation of that type and on that scale. I completely sympathise with that. I believe that farmers need to be able to plant their land and the farmers who have planted their land in good faith need to be able to fell those trees.

That said, we need to ensure that plantations, and especially what is replanted, is done responsibly and in an environmental and ecological manner and that landowners are incentivised to do so. We are all aware that if one fells an acre, ten acres or a 1,000 acres it has to be replanted, but there is very little incentive to replant with anything better than monoculture, which is dead. There is nothing living inside those plantations. There is very little incentive to replant with anything different or better. There is very little supervision with what Coillte in particular is doing. As the water courses of east Clare are being degraded farmers are regularly consulting with each other and are being consulted by Clare County Council about it.

I welcome what the Minister is doing but we do need to strike a balance.

This is about balance. We must make sure that people can make decisions and that decisions are made quickly but also that environmental concerns are taken into account adequately.

5:15 pm

Photo of Michael FitzmauriceMichael Fitzmaurice (Roscommon-Galway, Independent)
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I wish the Minister of State luck in her new position. I will support this Bill but to be clear, it will not solve the problem. It might solve the problem with applications going forward but it will not solve the problem of the 2,000 applications that are caught in the trap at the moment. As the Minister of State is aware, 12,000 jobs are at stake. In my neck of the woods we have companies like ECC, Murray Timber Group and Masonite Ireland. All is not well in the timber industry, as has been highlighted by others. We have got to solve the current logjam affecting 2,500 ha. Farmers have the right to plant trees on their land if they want to but I know of applications that have been up to 700 days in the system. While this legislation can be enacted straight away, what will happen to the 2,000 applications in the system at the moment?

I can give examples of what we are dealing with in terms of the Department. It is not today nor yesterday that this started happening. If one looks at the period from 2016 to 2020, we have planted just over 50% of what we said we would plant. Why? It is because the Department knew there was a problem but it did not deal with it. In Mayo, there was brashing to be done and fertiliser to be spread and there was a grant available for same but applicants were waiting three and a half years for a decision from the Department. I know of an incident in Roscommon where a person gave a road away in part of a plantation to enable a community to get out. There was an acre to be knocked and the grant was taken from the person. A return of the money was sought from the person even though the road was given to the council for free. That is the mentality of the Department with which the Minister of State is dealing.

People need to understand that this all started with the habitats directive. If ports, roads or forestry are within 20 km of an area covered by the habitats directive, they are nailed. Our current President signed that directive into law in 1997 and it is causing major problems. The Department has not determined how it can go round the directive. The same person 40, 30, 20 years ago or now, under the terms of the habitats directive, makes a decision on an application to plant trees but it just does not add up at the moment. That person cannot screen out an application until it is decided that a different person in the band will get that piece of paper; that it is not the drummer any more, it has to be the guitar player. There are serial objectors and I, above all people in the world, am no fan of them but people have a right to object. They have seen the gap that we have left. Applications are sent in but the person making the decision on them is not suitably qualified to do so. Every application that goes in has to be screened in whereas if we had a person who is suitably qualified, he or she would conduct an overall analysis and get it out, after which the forestry inspector could deal with it. Until we decide to do that, we are going nowhere. The system has to change. If the Minister of State spent four years watching over a situation where we went from planting 7,000 ha to 2,5000 ha, would she be getting votes in Offaly? There is a serious problem in the Department and someone has to have the liathroidí to say so. We are beating around the bush here about it and if we keep at that, we are never going to solve it. We have got to face up to the fact that there was a loophole that environmentalists could exploit. They went for it and they got it. We have to close that loophole but we will not do so unless properly qualified people are able to screen something in or screen it out. Let it be screened out straight away, before ever getting into the appeals process. That is the first part of the process that has to be resolved.

The Minister of State has an important decision to make today. Many Deputies have submitted amendments, some of which I would describe as very good. However, there will be a whisper in the Minister of State's ear by a Department that has failed for the past four years to resolve this issue. I went to the Department about this three years ago. I saw this coming even though I am no expert on forestry. In actual fact, I have problems with it in certain places but the reality is that there will be forestry and farming. We need the 12,000 jobs and we need the lorries to keep going. There is a danger now that the pharmaceutical industry will not have pallets on which to ship its goods out. Yesterday we were lauding our pharmaceutical industry, saying that it was keeping the country going. That is how serious this is but is the Minister of State going to listen to the whisper in her ear from the Department telling her not to accept the amendment from one or the other Deputy because it is never done in here, the Government has a majority and can drive the Bill through? What will we drive through? We will drive through legislation that might solve the problem going forward but we will still have the basket of problems that has been left behind. The Minister of State has to decide today whether to build a new road and to listen to what people are saying. We are not saying this just to make up stuff. We are saying it because we see what is happening on the ground. We are saying it because we want the industry to move forward. We do not want to see it on its knees. The Minister of State has a choice. She can either consider the amendments and work with Deputies or she can listen to the whisper in her ear from a Department guilty of four years of non-activity and backward steps resulting in a reduction in planting from 7,000 ha to 2,500 ha. It is not just me saying this - the Department's own figures show it. The Minister of State should listen to the stories I told about the person who gave the ground and still the Department took the money from them, or the person who wanted to spread fertiliser or do some brashing. If a Department cannot make a decision in four years, then something must give. I agree with Deputy Connolly about the Mackinnon report. I have heard that the procurement has been done but nobody has been appointed. Can the Minister of State confirm that? When will somebody be appointed? In fairness, that report said everything that I am saying and it is the way forward.

Photo of Christopher O'SullivanChristopher O'Sullivan (Cork South West, Fianna Fail)
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I congratulate the Minister of State on bringing this Bill before the House. It is urgently needed on two fundamental fronts. First, we need to promote afforestation, biodiversity, habitats and rewilding and without this urgent legislation, that cannot happen. The second front, which has probably gotten the most airing here today and rightly so, is the need to save the timber industry which is coming to a crashing halt.

On rewilding and the planting of trees, the programme for Government, contrary to what has been said previously, is very strong on balanced afforestation, the planting of a much higher percentage of broadleaf species, rewilding and biodiversity. For example, the programme is strong on supporting community groups to plant native woodland species in their areas. These are projects that are ready to go across the country but they cannot proceed because of licensing issues. It is also strong on the planting of trees in urban areas, in our cities and towns. Community groups and tidy towns committees are coming together all over the country with these fantastic projects and this legislation is needed to support such projects. We hear many calls in this Chamber for a strong agri-environment scheme or a REPS II and part of that will be the planting of native woodland species that promotes biodiversity, habitats and rewilding. That will come to a standstill unless we get this legislation through the House. That is the importance of the Bill in terms of the balanced approach to afforestation being taken by this Government.

The second fundamental point is that the timber industry needs this legislative intervention. As has been stated by almost every contributor, 12,000 jobs are dependent on it. That is the national picture but if one takes it back to a micro level one can look at GP Wood in Enniskeane, right on the border of my constituency of Cork South-West which employs about 500 people. In an area encompassing Enniskeane, Ballineen, Clonakilty, Dunmanway, Bandon and Coppeen, 500 hundred jobs is absolutely enormous.

It is vital but it is struggling, and it is coming to a halt at the moment. It is being forced to import timber, which has other impacts in terms of carbon footprint, and it is being forced to reduce the hours of employees because of the issue of supply. This legislation addresses that and it cannot come soon enough.

I want to raise an issue which has not been touched on enough in the Chamber. There is a huge mental health aspect that I feel this legislation addresses. There are landowners and forestry owners throughout the country who have mature woodland that is ready to be felled. They are waiting for the income from that, but due to the situation with forestry licensing, they have to wait two or three years, which has a massive impact on their mental health. This needs to be addressed.

We need extra resources in the forestry appeals committee and we need the extra ecologists who are being provided, but we also need this legislation.

5:25 pm

Photo of Éamon Ó CuívÉamon Ó Cuív (Galway West, Fianna Fail)
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D’éist mé go cúramach leis an díospóireacht go dtí seo. I congratulate the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, on her appointment. I have always felt that, in any system where there are undue delays in making decisions, justice delayed is justice denied. Everybody should have the right to object, but decisions should be made speedily. I know farmers who have been waiting three or four years to fell a small amount of timber that was grown for ecological purposes.

The second point is that the timber industry is very important. As has been said many times in the House today, there are 12,000 people employed. Nationally, we need 3 million cu. m of timber and as a lorry with a trailer contains about 30 cu. m, we can figure out how many truckloads of timber we need. For the commercial sector, the bread and butter, like barley for making beer, is Sitka spruce, which is needed for the timber milling industry. We need to have this debate.

We have to recognise that we have a great climate for growing trees. Trees grow to maturity here in 30 to 35 years whereas it would take 80 years or more in some of the Scandinavian countries. Therefore, we have a competitive advantage, and the timber we grow now, due to modern technology, can be made suitable for the construction industry.

Good work has gone on in the past ten years. I set up Comhairle na Tuaithe and, since then, there has been a great opening up of forests to rural recreation. Coillte has done a great job, using it for both rural recreation and for commercial purposes. However, we need a decision on the felling part of the licence. I cannot understand why people cannot be given permission to fell, subject to agreement on replanting and with the actual details of that to be agreed. If we do not do something very fast, the timber industry will come to a halt.

To give the example of the timber mill near my home, ECC Timber, which is in a very rural area, employs 140 people and 50 to 60 local hauliers draw in timber on a full-time basis. Other local businesses would employ five to ten people who are dependent on the mill, and outside hauliers and harvesters, including in the forest area, would add another 150 to 200 people. In other words, this business is the Intel of north Connemara. To give the Minister of State some idea, the wage bill is €8 million, the contractors are paid €25 million a year, and 20 loads of top-quality timber are exported to Britain every day. When we look at the socioeconomic effect of this in the area in which I live, which is a very rural area, we see the standard of living there is above the national average.

We need this issue dealt with immediately. We then have to look at the proper mix of planting into the future. In the meantime, however, the house is on fire and the mills are ready to stop. We need a release of timber for felling and, as I said, we can agree the planting later.

Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine (Senator Pippa Hackett):

I thank the Deputies for their contributions. I welcome that there has been a healthy engagement with the Bill by the Members of the House. I would reiterate that the purpose of amending the existing legislation is to improve the functioning of the forestry appeals system, a system put in place to facilitate those who wish to make an appeal, that is, to appeal the decision of a Minister in regard to the issuing of a forestry licence. I believe the proposals in the Bill will provide people with a full and open opportunity to make their views known on forestry projects to an independent and adequately resourced forestry appeals committee. This will mean timely decisions on such appeals and a fair and just response to applicants and interested third parties alike.

I note the support I have received in the House for the Bill and I thank those Deputies who have spoken to that. The concerns of the sector and those who work in it are very real, and this resonates throughout the country. I appreciate there are concerns about the Bill and I thank those who have engaged in this regard also. On balance, I am of the view that, taking into account the public consultation exercise and having taken on board certain amendments last week in the Seanad, I have presented a Bill which reflects the majority support expressed but has also addressed the main reservations put forward.

I will address some of the individual points raised by Deputies. I welcome the support of my colleague, Deputy Leddin, and agree with his assertion that we need to work with farmers in any future forestry model. My colleague, Deputy Duffy, gave an eloquent account of forestry in Ireland, the benefits of forestry and its uses in the construction sector. That "wood first" policy should certainly be rolled out across the country.

Deputies Aindrias Moynihan and MacSharry highlighted the need for a fairer and more balanced approach to where we plant trees across the whole country, and this was echoed by other Deputies. I note also the support from the Independent groups. Deputy Harkin effectively highlighted the concerns about forestry in her constituency, of which I am very aware, and it is something we need to address moving forward.

I welcome Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan's highlighting of the progressive measures within the programme for Government, as well as the jobs under threat in his constituency. In addition, his highlighting of the mental health issue raises an important aspect.

There were specific comments and questions. Deputy Sherlock yesterday asked specific questions about the regulations, and this was echoed by Deputies Carey, Michael Healy-Rae and others. It is my intention to introduce the statutory instruments immediately on enactment of the Bill and we are working on that now. Not all of the regulations listed in section 14E are needed to give effect to the Bill.

Concerns were raised by many Deputies, including Deputy Fitzmaurice and others, about the backlog in licensing, which in essence is a separate issue to that dealt with in the Bill. This is something my Department has been addressing in the past 12 months or so, which is before my time. It has overhauled the assessment process to deal with this, revised the procedure, increased resources, developed training and guidance, and strengthened to a great extent its ecological team, which was where a lot of the delay in this process lay. The Department now has 14 ecologists whereas, this time last year, it had just one, so that is a significant shift in staff in that area.

Deputies Connolly and Fitzmaurice highlighted the Mackinnon report. The Government has committed to appointing an independent chair to oversee the implementation of that report. I can assure Deputy Connolly that I have no one whispering in my ear. I am well able to make my own decisions and I can interpret the Bill. I am aware of the necessity to get this Bill enacted as soon as possible.

I know there were concerns about the timing of the Bill and the speed at which it is being pushed through the Oireachtas procedure, and I share that concern. It is not ideal and it is not a situation I am particularly comfortable with.

It is, unfortunately, reflective of the grave circumstances in this sector and of the real risk to many thousands of jobs based in rural areas. Some may suspect that the industry is calling our bluff and I have seen people call for me to withdraw the Bill entirely but that is not something on which I am willing to gamble. I am not willing to gamble with those jobs. I have been on the phone to many distressed farmers and I have heard the concerns of unions. Farmers have contacted me who are watching diseased trees dying in their plantations and who are unable to do anything about it. Other farmers contact me to ask why their applications to plant native woodland are not going through, which is because of the delays in the process. It is absolutely imperative that the Bill be supported and I believe that support is there. The announcement of the public consultation at the end of July brought about exponential growth in the number of appeals and put more pressure on the system.

Some comments were made which do not relate to the Bill but to the wider forestry model. I take most of those on board. It is something at which we will be looking very shortly and into the future. I agree with Deputy Boyd Barrett that there is more scope for employment within the sector. This is again something towards which we need to work, although it is outside the scope of this particular Bill.

Some Deputies raised issues as to the independence and competence of the membership of the forestry appeals committee. These issues were raised yesterday by Deputy Farrell and today by Deputies Cairns and Harkin. I assure the Deputies that the committee operates totally independently of the Department and that it has the required skill set to discharge its functions. The current chairperson has significant expertise, experience and competence in matters relating to planning and planning appeals. We will be extending the membership of the committee, but all members of the committee are required to operate in an independent and impartial manner. The new members of the committee will be selected based on their range of skills and on their competences in environmental legislation, land use, knowledge of the appeals process and so forth. Deputies should rest assured that those on the committee will be competent in the relevant areas. Indeed, the forestry appeals committee can bring in additional expertise if it deems it necessary. It is always open for the committee to do so.

It is welcome to hear that there is overwhelming support for a new model of forestry for Ireland. That is really positive. Everyone in politics and some outside of the Oireachtas will be needed to help us design and shape that model. We will bring on as many as we can. We will bring with us those communities who have felt left behind so far, and we will address the issues relating to climate action and biodiversity. It is a really exciting time. This Bill has been greeted with some contention but it is just one step which is absolutely necessary. Beyond it, we will have the scope to develop what I hope will be a wonderful model of forestry for Ireland. This Bill will strengthen the forestry sector which, as many have outlined, is tremendously important in our society. We will deal with the other challenges very soon afterwards.

There is an issue with fees. The purpose of this legislation is, in part, to align the system with the planning system, in which the charging of modest fees for submissions and appeals is well established. This provision is Aarhus compliant, as is the Bill. Deputy Cairns queried the robustness of the legislative scrutiny of the Bill. This was robustly examined by our legal team and by the Attorney General. We also consulted the Aarhus unit in the office of the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan. We are satisfied, therefore, that the Bill and the modest fees, which I indicated would be in the region of €20 for a submission and €200 for an appeal, are compliant with the Aarhus convention. The fees are not intended to remove people from the process. It is reasonable to recoup some of the costs of the appeals process.

Question put and declared carried.