Wednesday, 24 November 2021
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, for coming in to take a matter that pertains to his personal responsibilities. On 1 December 2016, the then Minister said in the Dáil select committee:
The Wildlife (Amendment) Bill 2016 is important legislation. The bringing forward of this Bill is a commitment in the programme for a partnership Government.
After that, the Bill went through the Dáil and the Seanad, where it was amended. When the Government collapsed in 2020, the Bill fell, as all Bills do at the end of a Dáil session. What had to be done at that stage was to bring the Bill back into the Dáil to either accept or reject the Seanad amendments and finalise the Bill. Just as is the case with the mobility scheme, we in this country seem to have come into a world where we talk about doing things but nothing ever happens. It is almost two years since the election, although the Minister of State will argue that it took time to form the Government, which is another day's work. The House is owed a detailed explanation as to why, almost a year and a half in Dáil time since the Government was formed, we still have not gone through the simple process of bringing the legislation back into the Dail for finalisation and bringing it into law. When will this Bill be before Dáil Éireann for completion? If there really is a procedural issue with the Ceann Comhairle, I would have thought he could have sorted it out in a year and a half. In fact, I would have thought he could sort it out in a week, never mind a year and a half.
I thank Deputy Ó Cuív for raising this matter with me. I also thank the Minister of State for coming to the House. This has been going on since 2016. The Minister of State, Senator Hackett, was in the Chamber earlier. Forestry is being help up around the country at the moment because this legislation has not passed. A civil servant has probably written a long speech for the Minister of State. I know he is genuine about things. The facts are that there will be talk of some other Bill or something else being attached to this legislation. This is a short Bill that Deputy Ó Cuív, former Deputy and now Senator Kyne, and I discussed here. The Bill went into the Seanad, where it was amended. In talking to representatives of the National Parks and Wildlife Service at the time, my understanding was that they could live with the few amendments that were made. For the life of me, I cannot understand the situation. It is fine if the Minister of State or his Department want to bring in other legislation. We would handle that down the road without a problem.
This has been going on for five years during which people have been left in a quagmire regarding planning and especially forestry. As soon as a local authority or anybody sees natural heritage area, NHA, written over something - even though it is to be taken out of that - straight away it is out the gate. I know private forestry people who want to plant but when they see it, they run a mile from it. It is of utmost importance. I do not understand why we cannot - even if it is late some night here - reintroduce what Deputy Ó Cuív has suggested and solve this. The other legislation can be done later when the Government has time. I know there is a schedule but we need this brought through urgently.
Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leis na Teachtaí as ucht an cheist seo. I thank the Deputies for raising this and I hope it will help expedite matters. However, there are some complexities which I will try to outline.
The principal purpose of the Wildlife (Amendment) Bill, as initiated, was to provide for review of raised bog habitats, the making, amendment and revocation of natural heritage area orders and for those purposes to amend the Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2000. The Bill was originally presented to Dáil Éireann. There was a very constructive debate on the Bill in both Houses, including the adoption of the Deputy's proposals to extend its scope to provide for a review of blanket bog natural heritage areas. Later in the Seanad it was agreed to place a duty on public bodies to promote the conservation of biodiversity, which was an important and innovative section of the Bill.
As the Deputies will be aware, the Bill had completed all stages in the Dáil and the Seanad, and had been returned to the Dáil for consideration of the various amendments made by the Seanad. The Bill was at what is colloquially known as the "cream list" stage when the Bill lapsed with the dissolution of the Thirty-second Dáil on 14 January 2020.
Dáil Standing Order 227 provides that where a Bill passed by the Dáil is subsequently amended and passed by the Seanad, those amendments are then returned to the Dáil for its consideration. Standing Order 228 provides that the Dáil may accept, amend or reject the Seanad amendments. Amendments in the Dáil to the Seanad's amendments may only be moved where they are "consequential upon the acceptance, amendment or rejection of a Seanad amendment." There is no mechanism under Standing Orders to move amendments to a Bill returned to the Dáil under Standing Order 227, other than as set out in Standing Order 228.
It is the Government's intention to proceed to seek the approval of the Oireachtas for the important changes proposed in this Bill. However, Deputies will appreciate that the sequence of events I have described is an unusual one. My officials have been working with colleagues in the Houses of the Oireachtas to establish how it would be possible and what might be the appropriate procedure for restoring the Bill to the Dáil Order Paper, and to clarify the implications of any decision in this regard. Ultimately, this process would of course be subject to the ruling of the Ceann Comhairle on examination of the finalised text of the proposed restoration motion and any associated amendments.
Deputies will appreciate that restoration of this Bill to the Order Paper is not straightforward. However, once the complexities have been resolved it is my intention to bring a memorandum to Government outlining the next steps for the Bill. I hope that will be possible be in the early part of 2022.
I have met a number of Deputies and Senator Higgins to discuss issues of concern. This is a high priority for me and for my Department. There are other elements relating to the statutory footing of the national biodiversity action plan that also are very important to me. We want to deal with this as speedily as we can. I appreciate the Deputies' raising this today because it certainly focuses minds on getting this back onto the Order Paper.
I would be very interested to hear if there was a meeting with Deputy Fitzmaurice. There was certainly no meeting with me and both of us had a big interest in this Bill. I am still totally baffled. The Government was formed at the end of June 2020. It is now nearly December 2021. It has had a year and five months to resolve the issue. In my little simple mind, there seem to be two quick ways around this. The first is to change the Standing Orders of the Dáil to deal with this eventuality because I presume what happened was nobody thought of this eventuality; it was highly unlikely. However, the unlikely does happen. The other way is to reintroduce, as a new Bill in the Dáil, the Bill that was passed by the Seanad as the wildlife amendment Bill 2021 and put it quickly through the Dáil and Seanad. It has all been agreed and we would be home and dry. The procedural issues the Minister of State outlined should not have held us up. It has held us up for a year and heading for a year and a half because he has told us that it will not happen until 2022.
In fairness to the Minister of State, I do not think he said there were any meetings. I just spoke to him in a corridor, but there was no meeting about this with his staff. Would it be helpful, if it was workable for everyone here in the Dáil, that we would reintroduce the Bill? Would the Minister of State accept it? I know he wants to introduce Government Bills and I understand all that, but this is a bigger picture.
The Minister of State spoke about raised bog habitats, but he must remember that a lot of ordinary land that farmers are farming is involved. They are just held up at the moment. People will say that they should not be, but they are held up with planning, forestry or any other work they want to do with their land because it is a red flag the minute it goes on. There must be a way of resolving this rapidly. I ask the Minister of State to meet Deputy Ó Cuív and me. If there is a quick way around it and we can help him, we are willing to help him. This is not a barrage of politics with one against the other. This is about trying to solve a problem that is not of the Minister of State's making.
I would be more than happy to meet the Deputies to try to expedite this. As I said in my opening statement, it is our priority to try and get this through. We need to try to work through the complexities to resolve it. I believe we discussed it informally shortly after the Government was formed. I had a number of meetings with Senator Higgins to try and move it along. I assure the Deputies that it is of our highest priority to try to get this resolved once and for all. I would be more than happy to meet the Deputies to discuss it further and see how we can move it along.