Wednesday, 14 September 2022
Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate
Our next important matter comes jointly from Deputies Éamon Ó Cuív and Michael Fitzmaurice. They wish to discuss with the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, the reintroduction of the Wildlife (Amendment) Bill 2016. Since they both raised this in the House some months ago, I have raised it at every meeting of the Business Committee since, requiring that the matter be brought forward. I am afraid that the answer I receive has not changed from the start; it is still being looked at in the Department. There is a lot of looking going on.
I thank the Minister of State for coming into the House at this late hour. Having asked about this issue a number of times, with Deputy Fitzmaurice, I had not foreseen on the Adjournment that we would have to come in again. I have raised it under Questions on Policy and Legislation and so on. I have tabled written parliamentary questions and I keep getting the same answer.
I was very disappointed today when the list of promised legislation was published. I read the list and, in particular, the priority legislation only to see that this legislation is not on the priority list. I then looked at the list of all the other legislation for this session, which is a massive list, and found it. It is in the also-rans. All it states beside it in the right-hand margin is that work is under way. I find this extraordinary. My understanding is that the logistical difficulties of bringing the Bill back in have long been resolved and that all the Government has to do is bring it back on Final Stage where it stopped before. A number of amendments were made in the Seanad but 11 were Government amendments so presumably the Government was happy with those. They just have to bring them back in, put them down on the table and say, "Can we agree that they are all passed?" That means we were left with four amendments that had been put forward by Independent Senators and accepted in the Seanad. It baffles me that two and three quarter years later the Minister of State's office and the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel have not been able to agree to either accept, amend or reject these four amendments.
I concur with Deputy Ó Cuív. I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House, but, to be honest, what is going on is shambolic. I want to know if this is a Civil Service problem. We are sick and tired of this. In fairness, the Ceann Comhairle has gone above and beyond for everyone to ensure that this would be accommodated. Deputy Ó Cuív and myself have followed this. I know the consequences of this. I know farmers around the country who want to plant forestry but because it was in a natural heritage area, NHA, it is to be taken out under category 2 and they cannot do it. As well as the farmer losing, the country is losing. It is shambolic what is going on. I want to know who is responsible for this. Is it within the Minister of State's Department where an assistant secretary or a principal officer is responsible? This has to be called out now. It has been going on for too long. The Bill came in here. Deputy Ó Cuív was here and Deputy Kyne was here in the previous Dáil. He came in one evening. We are willing and, to be fair to the Ceann Comhairle, I am sure that he is willing to accommodate it. There is many a Thursday evening here when the Dáil is gone early. I am damn sure, in fairness to the Ceann Comhairle, that he is well willing to do it.
People in their offices do not understand that this is causing untold hardship for people right around the country. It is neither here nor there; it is something that neither is or is not. The minute anyone looks at the map now they say, "Oh, it is an NHA so we cannot go near it." It is constant. When they look at the area they go, "No, it is an NHA". It had indeed been designated even though it was categorised by the Department with scientific knowledge that it was to be taken out. It is scientific knowledge that is behind it. Everyone supported it. Deputy Ó Cuív knows more about it than I do and he has made it very clear that hurdles were jumped and all we had to do was get the Bill in. I want to know who is holding this up because we need to go to someone to find out.
Before I read the reply, it is with regret that we are here again this evening. I thank the Ceann Comhairle for his intervention in trying to get this forward. Like you, I want this matter resolved once and for all to give clarity to those landowners that the Deputies talk about and to get this important Bill over the line.
As the Deputies will be aware, the Bill was originally presented to the Oireachtas in 2016. The debate on the Bill in both Houses was very engaging, with a good discussion on extending its scope to provide for a review of blanket bog natural heritage areas, NHAs, and later in the Seanad on placing a duty on public bodies to promote the conservation of biodiversity.
The core focus of the Wildlife (Amendment) Bill, as initiated, was to provide for: the making, amendment and revocation of natural heritage area orders; a review of raised bog habitats; and for those purposes to amend the Wildlife (Amendment) Act 2000. The Bill had completed all stages in the Dáil and the Seanad and had been returned to the Dáil so that various amendments made by the Seanad could be considered. However, the Bill, unfortunately, lapsed with the dissolution of the 32nd Dáil on 14 January 2020.
As I have previously set out, 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.
The Deputies will recall that we met to discuss this matter late last year and, indeed, they have raised this matter with me in the House since then through a Topical Issue matter. As we discussed then, the restoration of this Bill to the Order Paper is not straightforward.
My officials are working to resolve the complexities that arose. Once completed, and the amendments made in the Seanad re-examined in consultation with the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel to ensure they are legally sound, the Minister, Deputy O'Brien, will bring a memorandum to Government to seek approval to have the Bill restored to the Order Paper. I hope that this would be done early in quarter 4 of this year. I will put whatever pressure I have to do to try and get that brought forward. As I have previously advised, at the same time the Minister will also bring a memorandum to Government to obtain Government approval for the amendments to the Bill made in the Seanad. This process is at an advanced stage and will be completed as soon as we can.
I would nearly be able to put this to music if I had any musical skills because we keep getting the same answer. For example, "As we discussed then, the restoration of this Bill to the Order paper is not straightforward." It is my understanding that this issue was resolved and that it is straightforward: one brings back the amendments or makes amendments under the relevant Standing Order to those amendments, and then the Bill comes back in.
As I have said, there are four amendments that could be contentious, and the rest are Government amendments. They are not that complex as issues. Amendment No. 2 was tabled by Senator Alice Mary Higgins and Senator Lynn Ruane to allow the Minister to propose a site for designation by virtue of its role in carbon sequestration or pollination specifically.
That is either accepted, rejected or amended. I do not see the complication there. Amendment No. 13 requires the Minister to commission a report on the guidelines of threshold for turbary rights, including a definition of household dues. It is not rocket science. Amendment No. 14 would effectively require the Minister, before making an order to dedesignate an natural heritage area, NHA, to lay a report before the Oireachtas on the site's condition, restoration, rewetting potential and so on. If the Ceann Comhairle will give me a little indulgence, there is one more, No. 15.
Let us be clear that we are seeking to give the Minister of State the ultimate Aladdin's lamp, because we are giving him new, pristine lands to designate as NHAs in return for degraded NHA bog, and he will not take the Aladdin's lamp when he is getting the new lamp. He must think there is a genie inside.
With the amendment Deputy Ó Cuív spoke about, the science is done already. There were categories 1 and 2. I remember when they were being done at the time. The science has been done by competent scientists. It is there for the Minister of State. No one else has to look at it. He decides then on the amendments. I think turbary rights have been sorted in recent weeks where people have the right to cut their turf, sell it and whatever.
On the science of the bogs, the National Parks and Wildlife Service looked at them. It got in RPS and the head scientist to look at the bogs and there was no way they could be regenerated. That is the bottom line. The service said it would give people a better bog. If I had a bad sheep, there was a really good one over the way and someone said they would give me that one for this one, I would be inclined to jump fairly quick for it. The Minister of State, however, or rather not him, in fairness, but his Department, does not want to.
On the day we sat down with the Minister of State for the meeting, and I thank him for that meeting, I understood from listening to the civil servants talking that every obstacle was gone and everything was sorted, but then we came into the House. In fairness to the Ceann Comhairle and his team, he said anything he could do, he would accommodate it. In our opinion and that of Deputy Ó Cuív, every obstacle was gone out of the way, but tonight, when we read the palaver some civil servant wrote, I wonder if they even looked back or if they just said they would put this answer down for these two guys, it might shut them up after 12 minutes and then they could go home. We are not going to shut up about this. We are going to keep at it until we get this in here and over the line.
Thank you, Deputy. I think everyone in public life recognises the Deputies involved are not going to be silenced. I think we also all acknowledge the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, has been nothing but helpful on this matter from the start.
On the question of process, can I make it abundantly clear that if the Bill we are going to deal with is the return of the Bill that has made its way through the House and through the Seanad together with the amendments that were contemplated, that is completely simple and straightforward. No rocket science is involved and no complexity. If the Government, on the other hand, is going to change the Bill radically with a pile of other previously unheard of amendments, that is where the complication would lie.
Yes. That is not the intention. The intention is to try to make it as swift and clean as possible. I appreciate the frustration of the House and both Deputies in particular as well as that of the landowners the Deputy spoke about. I give my assurance that, if it requires it, I will sit down and look at where the obstacles are. I will organise a meeting with both Deputies in the next week or so, if that is okay. We will do that and try to find out once and for all where the obstacles lie in this because I want it resolved. We have a new national biodiversity action plan in train and we really need to move forward in resolving this for the common good. I give my sincere apologies to both Deputies.
Sorry to talk out of turn but, given the Minister of State said he will hold a meeting for Deputies shortly, and, in fairness to the Ceann Comhairle, he has made it clear he is accommodating, and we thank him for that, it would be very helpful if it was possible for a representative of the Ceann Comhairle or the Ceann Comhairle to be available so that we would not be going over and back and that we would have everyone there able to say "Yea" or "Nay" on whether this can go through. Would that be possible and in that way we would finally put it to bed?