Thursday, 15 July 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Thank you, a Cheann Comhairle. I wish you well as we break up this evening. I thank you for your co-operation and I thank the team, including Peter Finnegan and everyone else, for their help throughout this term. Thank you for selecting this Topical Issue matter, which is important.
An Taisce has done brilliant work in the schools competitions, Tidy Towns competitions, green flag competitions and in assisting people in many other ways as well as giving leadership in the country. However, serious issues have now arisen with An Taisce. Only recently I became aware of the funding. An Taisce has already received €4.5 million in taxpayers' money so far in 2021. In the past decade the organisation has received in excess of €30 million in taxpayers’ funding. It is State funding but it is taxpayers' funding ultimately. As we know, it is a prescribed organisation and planning permission has to be referred to the organisation if the site is anywhere near a national heritage area or listed building.
I believe that it has gone into overreach. We have a situation involving a Glanbia plant in south Kilkenny. The group have been holding it up now for several years. Planning permission was granted by Kilkenny County Council and the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA. The applicants have the licence and An Bord Pleanála approved it. An Taisce has taken the board to the High Court three times. This is an abuse of its position. This is using taxpayers' funding to deny taxpayers. Farmers have invested millions of euro to upgrade and increase the national herd and to have milk supplied in the hope that it will be made into cheddar cheese that is so badly wanted. A Dutch company is pulling out. The Taoiseach was asked if the group would stop the claims or any more High Court appeals. There are rumours that they may even go to Europe.
I have asked the group how they are funding all these cases. The Rural Independent Group met them. They will not meet us again. We only had a short meeting for an hour. They insisted on having it recorded. I asked how they were funding these cases. They told me it was pro bono. Few lawyers will do pro bonocases that go to the High Court several times as well as the European court. It is simply not doable.
The tap must be turned off on the funding. I will bring forward an amendment in the autumn to have An Taisce unprescribed because the group have become a nuisance and an irritant now. They are too big for their boots and are doing significant damage.
There is a period house in Knocklofty owned by the late Earl of Donoughmore. It has been ruined but they will not even look at something like that. They will not look at issues they should be looking at but they are looking at issues where they have no business. They are stopping farmers from doing work that they need to do. It is total overreach.
I hope the Minister of State will have some ideas about reining them in. The Taoiseach told the House his position but they ignored him and appealed again. We have to do something to get this group. They can do the valuable work they do, but they should allow business, farmers and people to produce food for us to eat in this country.
I fully agree with all the sentiments from Deputy McGrath. There should be a full investigation into where the funding of An Taisce is going.
An Taisce should have made a submission on the fever hospital in Croom. Those involved never made any application on it. They were asked afterwards and they blamed Covid-19. They are funded for certain cases. Where An Taisce should be doing work, those involved are not doing it and in cases where they are not supposed to be doing work, they are doing it. We can see what they are doing with the cheese factory. We can see the whole country is changing around. We are trying to push everything to imports to the country. We have the facilities and resources to do it. We are closing things down. We are allowing An Taisce, with taxpayers' money, to stop this. The buck stops with the Government and with the funding. It should stop now if those involved are not willing to encourage and look after our industries and get involved in creating work for the country rather than taking it out of here.
I thank the Deputies for raising this issue. The Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications has no legal function in respect of An Taisce. The Department provides An Taisce with funding for a variety of initiatives, including the National Spring Clean, Irish Business Against Litter, national anti-litter league and green schools programme. All payments made to An Taisce are in line with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform circular 13/2014 regarding the management of grant funding provided from public money.
Grant funding is paid on the basis of vouched expenditure only. An Taisce is required to provide supporting invoices stating that its claims relate to activities and services appropriate to the grant scheme objectives. The An Taisce green schools initiative, which Deputy Mattie McGrath outlined, is a whole-school programme and awards scheme comprising seven steps. It takes a thematic approach to environmental education. Key themes include litter and waste, energy, water, travel and biodiversity. Approximately 4,000 primary, secondary and special schools in Ireland are participating in the programme. This programme has been operating in Ireland since 1997 and is operated by the environmental education unit of An Taisce in partnership with local authorities and is supported by a number of Government Departments and agencies as well as corporate funders. The programme covers a wide range of thematic areas and impact measurements indicate substantial positive changes in knowledge, behaviour and opinion leadership among the participants. There are also substantial direct and indirect cost savings for schools in respect of waste, energy, water, and transport fuel with an associated reduction in greenhouse gases.
The national spring clean is Ireland's largest anti-litter initiative and has been operating since 1999. The programme encourages and supports individuals and groups across society to take part in their own clean-up events. In 2020, the national spring clean took place without incident during a pandemic. The number of events in 2020 was 5,413 and approximately 2,900 tonnes of litter was collected. In 2021, the national spring clean progressed under level 5 restrictions. Family or household bubble groups held their own clean-up within a 5 km radius of their homes. As the level of restrictions is lifted, the spring clean will be able to expand its scope and carry on through the summer and into autumn
The estimated allocation to An Taisce for 2021 is in line with the 2020 allocation of €675,000. Final details on payments in 2021 will not be available until the end of the year.
I welcome the Leas-Cheann Comhairle and thank her for all of her co-operation over the past year. I know she differs with me ferociously on this issue. I have acknowledged all of the good work of An Taisce. I have been involved in the green schools campaign and have worked with Tidy Towns groups all of my life. I acknowledge the good work An Taisce has done but I believe we need to recalibrate its role. I told the Minister of State about the listed building formerly belonging to the Donoughmores at Knocklofty Demesne. It has been plundered, as have many other sites, but An Taisce does not seem to have any interest in it. However, when it comes to jobs and farmers trying to earn a living, it comes out with patent nonsense. Apparently, it has no issue with the plant. Its issue is with Government policy regarding milk production and dairy herd numbers. This is shocking. It always said that it is good for work. We need to work together. We need to rein in its funding and to have some debate. An Taisce will not talk to us or meet with us. This has to stop. We cannot keep throwing money at it for every invoice it gives us. It is wrong.
I share Deputy Mattie McGrath's sentiments. We welcome the work An Taisce does with regard to the clean-up. I am been involved in the clean-ups in Limerick, as have all my family, neighbours and friends. That is a plus and a positive. The negative is what An Taisce is doing on the other side. The Minister of State has just said that it invoiced us for €675,000 during 2020. I want these invoices audited to ensure it is doing what it says on the tin. If it is not, then we will be able to get more out of that €675,000. It can be spent with more accountability so that we will be able to see where the money is going. We can get more work done out of it. I am a self-employed businessperson and may be audited. Let us audit An Taisce and see whether these invoices are legitimate and whether we can get the most possible for the funding it is getting.
An Taisce is a non-governmental organisation active in the areas of the environment and built heritage in Ireland. The Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications has no statutory function in respect of this organisation. The Department provides An Taisce with funding for a variety of initiatives, including the national spring clean, Irish Business Against Litter, the national litter league and the green schools programme. A total of €5.4 million has been provided between 2012 and 2020 in respect of these environmental activities and public awareness initiatives. The estimated allocation for 2021 is in line with the 2020 allocation of €675,000. However, final details of the payments for 2021 will not be available until the end of the year. It is important to state that all payments made to An Taisce are in line with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform's Circular 13/2014 regarding the management of grant funding provided from public money. As I have stated, grant funding is paid on the basis of vouched expenditure only and An Taisce is required to provide supporting invoices stating that its claims relate to activities and services appropriate to the grant scheme's objectives.