Tuesday, 3 July 2018
I welcome the Minister to the House. I raise this issue regarding the need for the Minister to update us on Ireland's transposition into law of the Aarhus Convention. The Minister is well aware of the importance of public participation in the planning process and how citizens across this country value that participation. It is an important and a very good convention that is relied on heavily and embedded into most city and county development plans. It is a very important aspect of our planning system that we have engagement with the public, with the citizens, as well as the public representatives in that process.
What are we talking about here? We are talking about enhancing environmental governance, transparency regarding proper planning and sustainable development of our communities, and empowering and entrusting people in sensitive information. However, more importantly, we are talking about giving people access and the right to information which governs and affect their lives, particularly regarding proper planning and sustainable development.
I welcome the Minister to the House and he might let is have his thoughts on these matters.
I thank Senator Boyhan for raising this issue. The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-Making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters, or as it is commonly known, the Aarhus Convention, was adopted on 25 June 1998, just two decades ago. The Aarhus Convention lays down a set of basic rules to promote public involvement in environmental affairs. The convention governs environmental justice rights and is formed by three aspects or pillars of the convention, namely: access to information on the environment; public participation in decision-making on environmental matters; and access to justice in environmental matters. The European Union subsequently introduced two directives to implement the Aarhus Convention. These are Directive 2003/4/EC, on public access to environmental information and Directive 2003/35/EC, on public participation in respect of drawing up certain plans and programmes relating to the environment. For the avoidance of any doubt I confirm that Ireland has already fully ratified the Aarhus Convention and this was achieved on 20 June 2012.
Since then Ireland has also ratified two related agreements: the protocol on pollutant release and transfer registers; and the GMO amendment to the Aarhus Convention. The convention and these two related agreements entered into force on 18 September 2012. An implementation table which details various legislative measures taken to implement the Aarhus Convention and related EU directives into Irish law is available on my Department's at dccae.gov.ie. This includes measures in the Environment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2011, principally to introduce new rules about costs to apply in certain legal cases. Since Ireland transposed the convention in 2012, a body of case law has naturally emerged, as Irish and EU courts interpret the convention as transposed.
My Department is currently working on the heads of a Bill to address such matters. This Bill is intended to reflect the recent case law and streamline the legislative framework, and to remove any doubts as regards Ireland’s intentions in terms of the transposition where the courts have expressed the need for greater clarity. The issues to be addressed in the Bill include: automatic recognition that certain environmental NGOs have sufficient interest in relevant environmental cases; establishing in law that judicial review is an appropriate review procedure under Article 9(2) of the convention; and where they exist, that administrative review procedures must be exhausted prior to an application for judicial review.
While it had been originally anticipated that the heads would be approved by the Government before the summer recess, a small number of issues still remain to be settled in consultation between my officials and those of the Office of the Attorney General. It is, therefore, now more likely that the Bill will the published in the autumn, although my officials are still striving to have the heads approved by the Government before summer if possible. Although this Bill, when enacted, will clarify certain matters regarding the transposition and implementation of the convention by Ireland, I would like to reassure the House that Ireland is already in full compliance with the Aarhus Convention.
I thank the Minister for his comprehensive response and to note that he is bringing forward a Bill.Would the Minister consider initiating the Bill in the Seanad? The Taoiseach, Deputy Leo Varadkar, was in the House recently talking about expanding the role around scrutiny and legislation, and working more on legislation, perhaps more than statements that we tend to see much of in this House. It is something that the Minister will be well aware of. Any Minister can initiate legislation in this House, and the Minister might give consideration to that in due course. I thank the Minister for a very comprehensive response.
I have no difficulty initiating legislation in this House. As Senator Boyhan knows, it is a scheduling matter, mainly dictated by the Government Chief Whip's office. I have absolutely no difficulty initiating legislation in this House. My priority is to get legislation enacted. It has to go through both Houses. It is the case that there is limited legislative time available in the Lower House. There seems to be far more time available in this House. I am called in every week to give statements. I am quite willing to bring forward the legislation in this House first. I have absolutely no difficulty with that.