Wednesday, 23 September 2020
Forestry (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2020: Second Stage
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I welcome the opportunity to introduce the Forestry (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. I thank the Dáil's Business Committee for agreeing to waive the requirement for pre-legislative scrutiny of the general scheme of the Bill due to the urgency of the need to introduce this legislation. For the same reason, I have requested that this House consider a motion to enable the President to sign the Bill earlier than would be routine.
Since being appointed Minister of State with responsibility for land use, biodiversity and forestry, I have been extremely excited by the prospect of shaping the opportunity that forestry offers to the environmental, social and economic well-being of our country. The programme for Government is ambitious in the context of the sector and I am determined to work with all stakeholders to realise this ambition. My commitment and that of the Government to the advancement of Irish forestry is unequivocal.
The sector has been experiencing its fair share of challenges in recent times, not least the ongoing difficulties with issuing licences for afforestation, roads and felling. I am acutely aware of these issues and my first and most pressing priority is to ensure that we have an efficient and functioning licensing system. Notwithstanding current difficulties, we must look towards the future of forestry and how best the sector can serve the environmental, social and economic needs of local communities and our society in general, because this has not always been the case. The greatest action to help meet these new aims will be the development of a new national forestry programme. I am committed to the development of an ambitious new programme and to us starting the discussion on same in autumn. This will require full stakeholder engagement, and I look forward to working with Senators.
We must first overcome the current difficulties and get the licensing system functioning for all. The reasons for the delay in issuing licences are well documented and have required the most fundamental changes to our licensing system in its history.As I am sure Senators are aware, there is a crisis in the forestry sector as the licensing and appeals system has come under significant pressure in the past two years. There are delays in issuing licences which relate to the licensing process itself, which my Department is addressing and I will speak more about that later. There are also long delays in determining appeals against licences issued. It is fair to say that the appeals system and the forestry appeals committee are currently overwhelmed. The delays being experienced are unfair to both stakeholders and citizens. A timely and efficient appeals process is needed and that is why this Bill is being introduced.
The Bill includes a suite of measures which will deliver a much more effective and efficient process which will meet and balance the needs of all. To provide some background, I will say a few words about the licensing system that is in place for afforestation, tree felling, forest roadworks and aerial fertilisation. My Department is the sole licensing authority for such licences and determines all forestry licence applications at first instance. All licences must be issued in compliance with EU and national environmental legislation, including the 1992 EU habitats directive. The licensing procedure allows submissions by third parties at application stage and provides for appropriate consultations with any relevant consultation bodies. Applicants and third parties dissatisfied with a licence decision of the Minister may submit an appeal on that decision to the forestry appeals committee within 28 days.
Since the introduction of the Forestry Act 2014 in May 2017, there has been an upward trend in the number of licences being appealed, with 14 appealed in 2017, 105 in 2018, 235 in 2019, and to date this year there have been 402 licences appealed. While the forestry appeals committee has increased the number of decisions issued year on year from 31 in 2018 to 172 so far this year, it is not keeping pace with the appeals received and this is the nub of the problem. A total of 490 cases, including 390 cases appealed in 2020, are awaiting decisions of the forestry appeals committee at the moment.
I have been engaging intensively with all relevant stakeholders on these issues and am acutely aware that the current delays in issuing licences have led to serious difficulties for people involved in the forestry industry. If no action is taken, we could very quickly face the prospect of sawmills running out of timber and of job losses, particularly in rural Ireland. The delays in hearing appeals are affecting the timber being felled and transported to sawmills and are influencing planting rates. To date this year my Department has established just under 1,941 ha of new afforestation, which is down by 35% on this time last year and is way off our national targets.
Before moving on to the specific provisions of the Bill and the public consultation process undertaken, I wish to point out that the Bill is not being delivered in isolation. We are also addressing other issues and delays with forestry licensing. It must be acknowledged that decisions on granting licences have been slow and we now have a significant backlog of applications. This arose in response to a substantial change in our appropriate assessment procedures which deal with the impact of projects on sensitive European sites. In the past year we have completely overhauled our assessment process and it is now robust and responsive to the environment in which we operate. While mistakes were made in the past, these are actively being addressed. This has meant that the Department has had to revise procedures, increase resources, develop training and guidance and strengthen its ecological team. While this has taken time, we now have a sustainable system. We are tackling the backlog through a dedicated project plan which operates to key performance indicators. A project manager is in place and a project management board is overseeing and monitoring delivery weekly. This plan is already yielding progress, with the number of felling licences issued in August the highest for the past 13 months in both volume and area.
The action taken in improving the number of licences issued must be matched by a responsive appeals system or a bottleneck will develop at the appeals stage. This is where we are now, which is why this Bill is so important. To ensure full public participation with these proposals, the draft Bill was published and opened to consultation for four weeks. I very much welcome the fact that almost 9,000 submissions were received by the closing date. This shows that this is an issue of intense public interest. While the vast majority of the submissions indicated support for the Bill in general, most did not engage with the details or specifics of the Bill.The submissions received have been examined and categorised by whether the submission came from industry, private individuals, public representatives or others and by whether they were in favour of or opposed to the draft Bill. The submissions were also grouped and analysed based on the Bill head or section addressed. I have provided Senators with a copy of the report - it was circulated earlier - which summarises the main outcomes of the public consultation. This has been published to coincide with the publication of the Bill.
Careful consideration has been given to specific suggestions made and, as a result, the Bill I am presenting to the House has been updated to take account of the feedback received. All submissions will be published on my Department's website in due course in a suitable format that meets GDPR requirements.
The main provisions of the Bill include: increasing the capacity of the forestry appeals committee to determine appeals by enabling it to sit in divisions of itself; enabling the forestry appeals committee to determine appeals without an oral hearing where it is possible to properly dispose of an appeal in that manner; providing the Minister of the day with a regulation-making power to specify, among other things, the procedures to apply in relation to appeals and for related forestry appeals committee matters generally; and the introduction of reasonable fees for appeals.
Updates that have been made to the Bill to take into account suggestions made during the public consultation process include the following. The new Bill will make no change to the right of applicants and all third parties to appeal directly to the forestry appeals committee. All third parties will, therefore, have the right to appeal. This is quite rare in Europe. In Scotland, for example, once a licence is issued, that is it and there is no option to appeal. The right of third parties to appeal is a very important aspect. The quorum required for the forestry appeals committee to sit will be set at two. This will consist of a chairperson or deputy chairperson and at least one ordinary member. This is to increase the efficiency of the committee.
The Bill will provide that licensing decisions may be affirmed, varied or set aside and returned to the Department. This provision will clarify the role of the forestry appeals committee. There will also be a requirement for all information and documentation to accompany an appeal in order for it to be valid. This is to ensure the efficient functioning of the committee. The Bill will also provide clarity as to the circumstances in which the Minister might issue a general policy directive, that is, when prioritising certain classes of appeal having regard to the need to ensure the economic and environmental yield of forest goods and services in the State. All of these amendments are necessary to remove the delays currently being experienced in the system and to reduce decision times in the forestry licensing system overall.
I will now go through the Bill in a little more detail. Section 1 deals with the definitions of the Forestry Act 2014 and the Agriculture Appeals Act 2001, hereafter referred to as the Act of 2001.
Section 3 covers the amendment of section 14A of the Act of 2001. It provides for the appointment of deputy chairpersons to the forestry appeals committee and for the committee to sit in divisions of itself. It also provides for the quorum of the committee to be two persons, for a time limit of 28 days to launch an appeal and for the deletion of the provision that a decision of the forestry appeals committee may be appealed to the High Court on any question of the law.
Section 4 deals with further amendments to the Act of 2001. These include provisions for procedures and arrangements for the conduct of appeals, including oral hearings, and for the types of decisions the forestry appeals committee may make. It allows the Minister to issue general directives as to policy prioritising certain classes of appeal. It also enables the Minister to make regulations having regard to the efficiency of the system of appeals and the publication of documents relating to appeals on the forestry appeals committee website. It also gives the Minister powers to prescribe fees by regulation.
Section 5 amends the Act of 2014 and allows for the publication of application documents on the Department's website. It also deletes certain sections of the Act to allow for the making of regulations to prescribe fees following the procedures outlined in the Act of 2001.
Section 6 outlines the transitional provisions for the coming into operation of the provisions of the Bill. In effect, operational matters related to the composition of the committee come into effect immediately upon enactment of the Bill, as do directives from the Ministers.Fees may be imposed on licenses made on or after the Bill comes into operation.
Notwithstanding current difficulties, we must also look forward to the future of forestry and to how best the sector can serve the environmental, social and economic needs of local communities and of our wider society in general. The biggest action to help meet these new aims will unquestionably be the development of a new national forestry programme. I am committed to the development of an ambitious new programme and that we will start that discussion shortly. As I said earlier, this will require full stakeholder engagement and I look forward to working with my colleagues in the Seanad and across the Oireachtas on this issue.
In concluding the introduction of this Bill to the House, I assure Senators that it will bring important efficiencies, proper procedures and operational clarity to all stages of the forestry licence appeals process. It will provide for forestry licence appeals to be conducted in a fair, straightforward and timely fashion. While I know this will not change the situation overnight and there is more work to be done, the proposed Bill - along with our project plans for managing the licensing backlog - will greatly improve the overall system and result in an increase in the number of licences available for planting and felling as a consequence. This will protect jobs within the forestry sector. In that spirit, I look forward to our debate on the Bill's provisions and on the reform which it can put in place. I commend the Bill to the House.
Before I call on Senator Murphy, I want to outline that there is a proposal before the Committee on Procedure and Privileges for the speaking rota on this legislation, which would allow for the Opposition to come in earlier. That is the rota I will use if the House is agreeable. Is that agreed? Agreed. I call Senator Murphy.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. Along with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, she should be complimented on dealing with this matter so quickly and efficiently. Before I say my few words, I appeal to everyone in this House that while we must have an open discussion and listen to everybody's point of view, we must realise why this Bill is coming through and why some people might use the phrase "fast track" to describe its passage. It is being fast-tracked because thousands of jobs in the forestry industry in this country are in jeopardy. Coming from rural Ireland, as the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, has pointed out, I can say that there will be thousands of families left without a wage packet if we do not urgently deal with this matter. That is why I am making a genuine appeal to every Member that once we have a discussion and everybody's point of view is listened to and dealt with, we would move ahead as swiftly as possible with the Bill.
Our party is supporting this Bill, which aims to make the forestry appeals system more efficient and reduce the backlog of appeals with the forestry appeals committee, FAC. It will align the forestry licensing and appeals process with similar planning processes and that is something that has been called for. This action is a commitment under the programme for Government. The Minister of State has given a good overview of the Bill, formerly known as the Agriculture Appeals (Amendment) Bill. The main purpose of this Bill is to amend the Agriculture Appeals Act 2001 to align the forestry licences and appeals process with similar planning processes. The Bill increases the capacity of the forestry appeals committee to determine appeals by enabling it to sit in divisions of itself. It provides for the appointment of deputy chairpersons to the FAC and for the committee to sit in divisions. It also provides for the committee to have a quorum of two, for a time limit of 28 days to lodge an appeal and for the election of the provision that such a decision of the FAC may be appealed to the High Court on any question of law. The Bill allows for the recruitment of additional members to the committee in order that deputy chairpersons may be designated and that the committee may sit in division. Those appointments will be made in line with best practice in terms of remuneration and at the minimum cost to the Exchequer.
This has to be described as important legislation, which aims to get the forestry sector moving again. The sector has warned that tree planting has collapsed and 12,000 forestry related jobs are threatened by the massive backlog in the Government's licensing and appeals system.The legislation is allowing for an increase in the number of persons on the forestry appeals committee and it allows for a sub-division of this committee so that it can review many appeals at the one time. The appeals process will be more efficient and work quicker. It is important that we get the appeals system working quicker. If we did not do something about this, it would take three years to clear the backlog.
The Bill, it is important to point out, does not restrict people from making an appeal on forestry licences. I am glad the Minister kept that in there because that is important as well. However, it introduces a small fee for lodging appeals, which up to now have been free. To be honest, I welcome that. It is only right that it should be there.
The licensing backlog has slowed forestry activity, including tree planting and thinning as well as felling and timber processors. Sawmills, manufacturers of wooden pallets and the construction industry have all expressed concern over a shortage of timber. I think of Masonite near Drumsna in Carrick-on-Shannon with probably 150 workers, Murray's sawmills in Ballygar in Galway with up to 200 workers and Glennon sawmills in Longford. I think of the people who are making pallets in the small business in Ballyleague in County Roscommon and the building business which need this timber urgently. We should also remember that it is a significant export business as well.
The timber industry is at "breaking point" with thousands of jobs at "imminent risk", the boss of State-owned Coillte has warned. Shovel-ready tree felling projects have ground to a halt in the Republic as a result of delays in a Government appeal mechanism for such projects. The delay has led to a substantial timber shortage in the State, with many workers in the sector facing the prospect of reduced hours or redundancy. Specifically, the industry has complained that appeals to the granting of tree felling licences are not being dealt with quickly enough by the Department's forestry appeals committee, FAC. That is a fair comment by the industry. The issue is that under legislation introduced in 2017, appeals to licences must be heard by a committee headed by the chairman of the FAC. It has become apparent, however, that when the legislation was introduced, the volume of appeals that would follow was not anticipated. This year, as the Minister of State has pointed out, 382 appeals have been made. Only one of those has been heard so far this year. In total, there are approximately 500 appeals outstanding, with a roughly two-year backlog now created. That is not acceptable.
We have to take into account what the Coillte chief executive, Imelda Hurley, said. Ms Hurley said that the crisis was creating a massive problem for the industry and that, "there is real risk of serious long-term damage to the entire timber industry".
Before I hand over to Senator McGreehan, I want to compliment the Minister of State on one of the lines in her speech. While I compliment her on all of her speech, it is great that we can look forward to opening up our woodlands. There is one right beside me at home is Slieve Bawn in Roscommon. I have been speaking to the Minister of State about it today. I refer to a big Coillte development there. We had a windfarm developed a number of years ago there and some people were not happy about it. However, between Roscommon County Council and Coillte, we have opened up fabulous amenities for the communities, and people from Dublin, Wicklow and wherever are welcome to come there. By doing that together, moving forward we can create a huge positivity for woodlands, Coillte and people who are in the private business as well.
I thank the Cathaoirleach for this opportunity to speak on the Bill. I congratulate the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, on bringing this Bill to the House. It must be a great honour to be here as Senator and Minister of State, only the fifth in the history of the State and the first in my lifetime. It is a truly historic day for Senator Hackett, standing as a Seanadóir in this Chamber for the first time also. It is great we feel like we are finally home.
I welcome this Bill. I welcome any Bill that will fix the backlog of applications for forestry. I think we will agree on many issues. The value of forestry is significant economically, socially and environmentally.
The backlog of applications is scandalous and it has had a detrimental effect on the number of tree plantations in this country. This Bill will secure forestry employment into the future. I have had constituents contact me on hundreds of occasions with queries as to where their applications are, the reasons for the delay, what the problem is, etc.They are always waiting for ecologists' reports or other reports, so the deployment of 13 extra ecologists is welcome. I welcome the changes made to the Bill and congratulate the Minister of State on taking into consideration the nearly 9,000 submissions made. It shows the interest and importance of forestry in this country.
Economically, forestry is vital. We have an excellent climate for tree growth and we should embrace that. We also need to encourage the planting of the right trees. I was heartened to hear the Minister of State on the radio at the weekend echoing that opinion. We have to ensure the balance is right. Commercial forestry is crucial and needs to be protected.
If we had planned it correctly we would not need to plant Sitka spruce. There needs to be a proper balance in that regard. Sitka spruce are destructive to the landscape and do not promote our native biodiversity. I may be accused of being a bit radical when it comes to my dislike of the Sitka spruce but I will not apologise for it. The State's relentless subsidised Sitka spruce afforestation programme is causing environmental problems. Irish animals, birds and fish species are being driven to extinction because of their natural habitat being replaced by unnatural conifer forests.
We need more ecological nationalism in this country. We need to protect our native trees and the Department should be doing more to encourage and promote the planting of native Irish trees. These trees originally grew in this land and these plants and trees supported and protected our first settlers. Many native Irish trees are a food source for insects and mammals while many non-native trees do not have similar benefits. It has been suggested that the lowly and common hawthorn can support around 200 different insect species. This link of native flora and fauna is important to highlight and remember.
Has the Department done an extensive scientific environmental study on the effects of Sitka spruce plantations on the Irish countryside, including water quality, irreversible changes to the landscape and pest control side effects? It is internationally recognised that exotic tree species are inherently more vulnerable to pests and diseases than indigenous tree species.
When is it hoped the backlog will be cleared? How many licences will be granted this year and per annum going forward?
I welcome the Minister of State. It is a special day for her for a range of reasons. She is the Minister of State, and as someone said earlier, very few Senators become Ministers. She is also a Green Minister of State. That is very significant and will be a central part of my contribution.
I will begin by thanking a few people. I thank the Library and Research team, which has had great difficulty with this Bill. It wrote to us yesterday to say it was not able to present us with a paper because it had not had the time and did not have the Bill. It is a disgrace that part of our Oireachtas sent out a memorandum yesterday stating that it could not do a spotlight on major legislative work. The legislation was also presented very late. That is not acceptable and the Minister of State should not stand over it with her Green and environmental credentials.
I particularly thank the Just Transition Greens. The Library and Research Service sent us only four submissions that it could identify externally, rather than from the Department. There was no facilitation from the Department but through public commentary in newspapers the service was able to ascertain that the Just Transition Greens, An Taisce and others had made submissions and it circulated them. Why has the Department failed in this regard? Every day, I have made contact with the Department and written emails, which I am happy to make available to the Minister of State and the House, requesting the public consultation.
We talk of the magic number 8,888, which is the number of submissions the Department tells us were made. Is it not funny that it should fall on that number? I knew that Green Party councillors, Deputies, Senators and city and county councillors had made submissions. However, the Minister of State did not choose to share them with us and the Department refused to do so. We received an email which stated that if we wanted a specific submission, we could have it. I wrote back immediately and asked the Department to provide an index of the submissions. The Minister of State's secretary said in an email that he had passed it to a higher level within the Department and could do no more.
This is, quite frankly, rushed legislation. The Minister of State opened her statement today by thanking the Dáil Business Committee for agreeing to waive pre-legislative scrutiny. That is a disgrace as well. That should not have happened. Were any members of the Green Party on this committee? Did they agree to deny us pre-legislative scrutiny?
The Minister of State is here to make a presentation on the Bill.I am delighted that the Minister of State is initiating the Bill in the Seanad, but she has tied our hands behind our backs because people closely and politically associated with her and those in government took a conscious decision not to have pre-legislative scrutiny. One thing I can say about the confidence and supply arrangement between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael during the previous Administration was that there was agreement that all legislation would undergo pre-legislative scrutiny. That was a good measure and I ask the Minister to State to consider it again. Is this a good start to a track record?
The Minister of State mentioned the appeals process, but hundreds of appeals are not even in the appeals process. Rather, they are stuck in her Department in Agriculture House or Johnstown Castle. That is disappointing. Let us not shoot the person who wishes to appeal. The Green Party has a track record of supporting NGOs undertaking environmental work and lobbying. That is how the Green Party was formed and many of its members are involved. Friends of mine in An Taisce in Dún Laoghaire are members of the Green Party. Despite that, the Minister of State has somehow been pushed out by this Administration to introduce a charge. Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil had a confidence and supply arrangement for the past four years. Not once did they decide to impose a charge, but when Senator Hackett became the Green Party's Minister of State, they pushed her out. She must now fight an internal battle with her party. This is a litmus test of how the Green Party will support environmentalists and NGOs, stand behind the Aarhus Convention, support the principle of justice associated with environmental matters, and support the environmental pillars that validly wish to make a submission. Submissions are not all negative. The Minister of State can make a positive submission.
I sought and got support from some Green Party Members in both Houses when I sought, with great difficulty, to abolish the €20 fee for city and county councillors when making submissions. The Minister of State's party strongly opposed any fee associated with the Freedom of Information Act. I commend it on that. I commended her party when it stood firm and stopped any fee for its councillors across the country, those who helped to get her elected to the Seanad. We supported them. I have many emails from them thanking me for my work in that regard. Put this Bill against all of that. I received an invitation to attend a meeting on Saturday. I thank those who are listening - I was pleasantly surprised. That is important to say.
The Irish Timber Growers Association, ITGA, made valid submissions on this process. The Minister of State has argued that she wants to streamline the process with the planning regime. Did she consider exploring the possibility of an environmental or forestry arm of An Bord Pleanála? The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has failed. This is not about people objecting. To the Minister of State's credit, she said that there were historical issues. However, she has been put to the fore to break ground and push out the charge. Why is there not a sub-division of An Bord Pleanála that has the skill set and the independence from her Department to arbitrate on and consider planning issues?
I acknowledge the help and support given by Mr. Tony Lowes from Friends of the Irish Environment to many Senators in respect of this Bill. I have mentioned An Taisce, which I also thank. I do not know how many people read today's article in The Irish Timesabout Mr. Jim McCaffrey, but I recommend it. His land is surrounded and blacked out by 60 ft spruce trees. Communities in Leitrim have been wiped out by forestry and German pension funds coming in and buying up land. I have spoken to farmers who have tried to increase their landholdings only to find they cannot buy any.
We will have a great deal of time to tease out this Bill, and I intend to use every minute of it to get my points across. During my research on the legislation, I was advised to read a book, entitled Forestry in Ireland: A Concise History, by Dr. Niall O'Carroll. I was reminded of the great Charles Stewart Parnell of Avondale, Sir Horace Plunkett, a Senator in the 1920s, Mr. Art O'Connor, the Minister in 1919 who introduced the Forestry Act, Mr. Seán MacBride, Mr. Erskine Childers and, indeed, Mr. Charles J. Haughey for his commitment to Irish forestry, particularly through the saga of the court cases concerning the great woods of Shillelagh.I will send a link to everyone today about the book because it shows its importance. The Minister of State spoke on the radio the other day about planning a trip to the None-So-Hardy nurseries, which over the last three years have had to shred 5 million trees, half of them oak trees. What a shame. I support a thriving forestry sector and a successful pallet manufacturing business. I support related jobs in the forestry sector. I want less reliance on imported timbers because I know the health issues, the beetle, and the disease that comes from imported timbers. I want to grow our forestry. I want to support silviculture, forestry schools and forestry training. I want a vibrant horticultural forestry nursery stock.
I am in favour of the bulk of what the Minister of State is talking about. I accept that there is a need for significant reform in this area and we need to support that. I want a forestry sector that is kinder to nature and works closer to nature. I want an end to the monoculture of planting particular species that has decimated our waterways, landscape and communities, and impacted in a negative way on our people. I do not think we are that far off and I do not want the Minister of State to take this personally, because I really want to support it.
I wrote to the Minister of State about the Mackinnon report and she replied. I asked for an independent chairman and the Minister of State wrote back to suggest that it would be a matter for the Department. If we are going to roll out the recommendations of the Mackinnon report, let us have an open and transparent chairperson or director driving those recommendations. Let us not fill it from within the Department. The Minister of State suggested it is a matter for the Department. I call on her to give some reassurance that it will be independent. I thank the Minister of State and look forward to participating in every aspect of this legislation.
I thank Senator Norris for his help. I welcome the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, to the House. It is a great day for the society, the Oireachtas and this House to have a Minister of State from this House coming with legislation and addressing this House. I am delighted that the Minister of State is here. It is an important day for democracy.
I welcome this important Bill. It is badly needed and has been required for a long time. The chaos we have seen in the forestry sector in the last two years has been chaotic. This has been building to a boiling point which we are now at. The Minister of State mentioned that there will be a knock-on effect if we do not pass this legislation. I might have to correct her in that regard. The issues have arrived. I spent yesterday afternoon in Grainger Sawmills in Enniskeane. Some 350 people work there and 200 people are contracted there. They will be on a four-day week from 1 October. Families in west Cork will be looking towards Christmas with their main workers working for four days a week. That is a major issue for me and my community. We are a small, rural community in Enniskeane. It is not a major town. To have the biggest industry in that village go to a four-day week will have a knock-on effect across the entire community in west Cork. It affects the hauliers and the people working in the industry itself.
I took the opportunity this morning to call some of the co-ops in west Cork. If one wants a six by three piece of timber, which is used for building sheds, it cannot be got. There is no supply of six by three timber in west Cork. We will have a scenario where the lads in construction do not have the raw materials to build. Shed construction is stopping because of the lack of timber. In the next few months, we will be importing timber from Scotland, through the port at Passage West, south of Cork. Five shiploads have been booked in for the next three months to keep this sawmill going. It is amazing to think that Ireland must import raw material from Scotland to keep industries alive.The industry is not a major multinational but it is one of the biggest employers in west Cork. We have reached a crisis. Families need to live and rural Ireland needs to survive. This Bill goes some of the way to address the issues. The Minister of State is right that the Bill will sort this issue in the medium and long term. However, we have a major issue in the short term. The ability for us to get out quickly the almost 1 million sq. m that is tied up in the appeals process is going to be the biggest dilemma faced by the Minister of State. I am confident that Members in both Houses of the Oireachtas will work with her over the next two weeks to ensure we get this legislation through. I will do my utmost to ensure that happens. If supply is continuously stopped, my people in west Cork will not have Christmas because they will not have an income going forward. We can pontificate in this House about what is right or wrong, what the name of the Bill should be and what it should contain, but this legislation affects people's lives and I am fighting for their survival here today.
I support the Bill. I also support the people who work in these factories, the people who work in co-ops but cannot get timber, the people who are working on timber-frame housing projects but cannot get timber, and the people who work in pallet-making factories in Macroom but cannot get timber. All of them need to survive and rural Ireland needs to survive. Our biggest dilemma here is to make sure the 1 million sq. m that is tied up with 500 appeals can be released. If that does not happen, Christmas will be cancelled, which would be a major dilemma for this Government and the Oireachtas.
I fully support the Bill as a practical step forward. It gives people the opportunity to lodge an appeal, which is right, and proposes to streamline the process so no one must wait a minimum of 44 weeks for a response even if it is to lay a roadway, a delay which is beyond all belief.
The proposed fee is an appropriate step forward. Some people believe there should not be a fee to lodge an appeal. For a long time one has had to pay a fee to lodge an appeal with An Bord Pleanála. An amendment has been proposed to allow public representatives to lodge appeals through local authorities free of charge. That relates to public representatives because they might need to lodge multiple appeals. However, it is totally impractical to allow multiple appeals to be lodged without paying a fee. That is an important step in this entire thing.
We must discuss the need for an oral hearing because not every case needs one. It is also important that we do not slow down developments.
We need people to plant and to engage. Some Senators who have left the House have an issue with the stigma of planting forestry. I am a farmer so I know that people in the farming community are hesitant about forestry. This debate has added to their fears and that is why there is a reduced interest in forestry. We need to coax people and work with farmers, communities and society. We also need to plant more species other than Sitka spruce. The core agricultural community has a great fear of forestry and the debate over the last two years has set the industry back a decade. The planting figures have plummeted because confidence in the market has reduced and the farming community is less likely to buy into the industry. We must work on this issue.
I support the legislation. I heard the Minister of State's interview on RTÉ Radio One today and I think two weeks is a positive timeline. We must work to ensure it is enacted in the next two weeks and then work to have the FAC up and running. The FAC must react because it is not good enough that only one appeal has been processed since July. Society cannot stand over that. The Government cannot stand over that.They need to be proactive in this space. They need to be turning out these appeals in a just manner. There has been one appeal finalised since July, with industries literally folding in west Cork. That is not good enough. We have an awful lot of work to do. This legislation is the start of the process. The other 1 million sq. m needs to be brought back out and then we need to work together to rebuild the confidence of the sector which has been damaged in the last two years.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important legislation relating to the forestry appeals process. I share the disappointment of my colleague, Senator Boyhan, at the rushed nature of this Bill. The Minister of State opened a public consultation process on a bank holiday weekend over the summer holiday period. The quality of the consultation was obviously going to suffer and lo and behold, it did. Senator Boyhan pointed out that we did not get a digest of the submissions and were not told who had made submissions, but we were told this morning that 81% of the submissions were in favour of the Bill. However, 99% of those who were in favour did not actually address the substance of the Bill. It appears that even the industry lobbyists did not have an opportunity in that timeframe to address the substance of this Bill, or perhaps they helped to write it. We then had a situation where we were informed on Friday that the Bill would come before the Seanad on Wednesday but we did not receive the draft Bill until 5.30 p.m. on Tuesday, with a deadline of 6 p.m. today for amendments. With all due respect to the Minister of State, this is no way to do business in a democratic institution.
Nobody wants to see anyone lose his or her job. Sinn Féin is fully aware of the extremely large backlog of appeals and the impact it is having on the supply of timber in this country. The system is well and truly broken and the Minister of State knows this. She inherited this mess and cannot be blamed for the situation in which we find ourselves. We have heard members of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael pontificating but they did nothing to address the situation under their confidence and supply arrangement. I know from previous statements the Minister of State made that she is aware of the systemic problems and that the number of appeals is actually the outworking of a system that is broken.
The current forestry system is failing communities, farmers and sawmill workers. I sincerely hope that when it comes to developing the new forestry programme in 2021, we will have a proper root-and-branch reform of the whole system. We need a licensing system that is robust, environmental law and Aarhus Convention compliant, expedient and that will provide certainty for all stakeholders involved. What everybody wants is certainty and a system that will actually work to screen out the bad applications, thus reducing the need for appeals in the first place. Again, that is something we all want. If that is what the Minister of State intends to do in the future programme for forestry, then Sinn Féin will not be found wanting in working constructively with her in developing such a programme. However, we are not discussing a future forestry programme today. We are discussing this Bill and I will now address the elements of the legislation about which I am deeply concerned.
First and foremost, I ask the Minister of State for legal clarification. SI No. 191/2017 of the transposition of the environmental impact assessment directive in relation to forestry states, "The High Court shall be the court of law for the purpose of Article 11 of the EIA Directive". Yet, on notification of the granting of the licence under the Forestry Act 2014, anyone who made an observation is actually directed to the forestry appeals committee. Where is the legal basis for having these two contradictory messages? I ask the Minister of State to clarify that contradiction and to provide assurances that this Bill will not be challenged in the courts on foot of it.
For the past number of weeks we have heard from the Department that this draft Bill is about bringing the forestry appeals process into line with the planning process. We have heard that argument again today.If that were, in fact, the case, then that would be real progress, but it is not. The forestry appeals process is nothing like the planning process, and for the Department to say that repeatedly is disingenuous. The planning process, while not perfect, has a highly sophisticated and integrated framework. It stems from a national planning framework to regional planning guidelines to county development plans to local area plans. Appeals taken to An Bord Pleanála are generally appeals against decisions made by a local authority. There is a separation of power between the local authority which took the decision and the panel that will adjudicate on the appeal.
With the forestry appeals committee, however, we have a situation whereby we have a Minister, who, by the nature of her role, is responsible for promoting forestry. That is fine. She is also responsible for licensing the forestry, which is okay. Then we have a situation where the Minister is responsible for appointing those who will sit on the appeals committee. With An Bord Pleanála, stakeholders and expert groups get to nominate candidates for the expert panels, while in this Bill, the Minister can appoint directly to the forestry appeals committee. This is not good oversight, in anyone's eyes. Independence, and the perception of independence, are crucial for confidence in legislation.
An Bord Pleanála also has reams of legislation which it must take into account when making a decision on an appeal. The forestry appeals committee is prescribed to make decisions in the draft Bill "as it considers appropriate".
Then we come to the matter of fees. Here, my colleague is absolutely correct. Nothing was done to introduce fees in the past, but now a Green Party Minister is being sent out to do the batting. The Aarhus Convention states that access to justice should not be prohibitively expensive. The Minister already has the powers to introduce fees, but those fees are subject to the scrutiny of the Oireachtas. This draft Bill removes that scrutiny from the Oireachtas and gives the Minister the power to introduce the fees. It does not outline what the fees will be, it just tells us that they will be in compliance with the Aarhus Convention. However, if we are again to take the Department's previous statements that it is to align with the planning process, then we are probably talking about a figure of around €220.
The rub is that forestry licences are not like planning applications. There are afforestation licences, road licences, felling licences and aerial spraying licences, all for the same area. If one happens to be a concerned resident or a community, then there may be multiple appeals to be lodged, which could quickly escalate into thousands of euro for a community or resident, which, and I am sure the Minister will agree, would not be in compliance with the Aarhus Convention.
The 28 days to appeal a decision is again supposed to bring it in line with the planning process. However, very detailed submissions are made with a planning application. The current application process for forestry licensing is not as comprehensive. Therefore, in order for an appellant to gain access to all the documentation he or she requires under the access to the information on the environment, AIE, that alone could take 28 days, and his or her appeal will not be accepted unless he or she includes all of the documentation. What is even more concerning is that this draft Bill allows for the Minister to have the power to reduce the timeframe to 14 days, so one could be on holiday and come back to find that the opportunity to appeal had been missed.
These are the concerns I have with this draft Bill, but I am not here just to obstruct. I, and my party, want to be as constructive as possible because we genuinely want to help. We do not want to see anybody lose their jobs in the saw mills. The Minister told us it is an emergency and we need to fast-track the appeals process. We heard the same in relation to the strategic housing development legislation. Emergency legislation was rushed through and we were told that it would help to address the housing crisis and speed up the delivery of houses because nobody wanted to see people continuing to be homeless. Yet, we have not seen the promised increase in housing supply, but we have been left with very poor legislation.
Therefore, I believe that this emergency legislation, if it is to pass, should be subject to a review, and continued oversight by the Oireachtas. A new forestry programme is promised, and that presents the opportunity to address the systemic flaws and for the Minister to erase the legacy of the previous Governments.A new forestry programme is promised and this is the opportunity the Minister of State has to address the systemic flaws and to get rid of the legacy of previous governments. This is the Minister of State's opportunity to design a fit-for-purpose, streamlined system that everyone can work with.
I will bring forward amendments to address some of the problematic areas in the Bill such as fees, excessive ministerial powers and the length of time in which to appeal. Our amendments will be pragmatic. Sinn Féin asks the Minister of State to give us the commitment, to work with us, to listen to our concerns, and to give consideration to the constructive amendments we bring forward. Every Member in this House wants to see solutions to the current situation. I appeal to the Minister of State to not do what her other colleagues, Ministers in government, have done to date by simply objecting to every amendment brought by this side of the House. I ask the Minister of State to work with us, let us protect the jobs and the environment, and let us get this right once and for all.
I welcome the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, to the House. It is a great honour to see one of our colleagues elevated to the role of Minister of State and it is great to have her here.
There is no doubt that there is a crisis in forestry licences and there is an impact due to delays. I am cognisant of the delays and the impact these have on individuals. Forestry in Ireland, including the sawmilling industry is in crisis because the forestry service is simply not able to process licences for applications to plant or fell trees. We are aware of the impact this crisis is having on rural jobs in planting and forestry maintenance, for forestry harvesting contractors, for haulage contractors and for sawmilling. There are no pallets for exporting goods and there is a shortage of timber on shelves in hardware stores, in construction, in DIY and for fencing. We are under no illusion that there is a crisis and it needs to be dealt with.
We know that the problem is caused by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine not being able to process the licence applications to plant or fell. I will outline some timelines for some of the delays currently in the system. One application has been in the system for 713 days, another has been in the system for 520 days, while another has been in the system for 535 days. As of last week more than 30 licensee applications have been in the system for more than 350 days. This is absolute madness.
We recognise the serious need for the Bill, but as outlined on this side of the House, there are some concerns. One of my concerns is the rushed process for the Bill. We have been told that this is emergency legislation and that it must be done immediately. Members only caught sight of the Bill last night, officially, or, technically, this morning. This is less than 24 hours in which to analyse the Bill and turn around amendments. It was not so long ago since the Leader of the House gave Members her solemn word in the House that this would not happen again. It is very frustrating that we are here again in this situation.
It is also very frustrating that today in the Dáil Chamber the Labour Party has brought forward a Bill on sick leave for all. We have been told by the Minister of State's own Government that that Bill must be kicked to touch for six months. Sick pay is an absolute emergency during a global pandemic. While I do not conflate the two and say one issue is more important than the other, we have now been told that we must rush this Forestry (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2020 through the Seanad because workers' jobs are at risk. I put it to the Minister of State that those very same workers may need to avail of sick pay in the next six months but there does not seem to be the same level of concern on the Government side for that. Forgive me for being exasperated by what is and is not considered an emergency, especially in this House.
I am concerned about Committee and Report Stages happening together. This legislation is being rushed through the House and the Minister of State's goal is to have it through the Dáil by the end of next week. This is a two-week speed run at this Bill. In my short time as a Senator I have watched this Government rush through a judicial reform Bill, cancel at the very last minute an important debate on the needs of those in higher education, and now, with the very first piece of environmental legislation, giving Senators barely 12 hours between the official publication of the Bill and the submission deadline for amendments. It feels perhaps that it has been decided the contributions we in this House make on the issue are not actually worthy of a substantive debate.
I am particularly disappointed at this attitude coming first and foremost from a fellow Senator. I believe that all Senators felt a lot of pride when the Senator was elevated to Government. It was a sign that the work of the House and its Members are valued by Government.To have this rushed through, to deny the Minister of State’s fellow Senators the chance to contribute on this legislation, and to give us not even more than 24 hours to read the Bill before we submit amendments seems a pretty poor standard. I hope this is not how the Green Party in government feels about others from different political persuasions and our contribution to environmental legislation.
I want to reflect on the public consultation, and again other Opposition Members have reflected on this. Over the summer, there was a one-month public consultation, which is a short time by the standards of any public consultation. Therefore, I have to commend the fact it got just shy of 9,000 responses, with 8,888 the golden number, I believe. This is a large number, no doubt, and shows deep concern and engagement on this issue. However, as has been referenced, thus far we have only received a report on the consultation process, a report which, by the way, we only received this morning, so we have had less than 24 hours, which is a tiny timeframe, to look at the Bill, analyse the report and come back with amendments.
If I wanted access to any individual submissions, I could contact the Minister of State's office and ask for a submission, but that is like looking for a needle in a haystack because I do not know what I am looking for as I have no idea who made the submissions. While the gesture was appreciated, it was not particularly helpful seeing as, without an index, I could not know who or what had made a submission. I am relatively digitally literate so I researched the submissions based on who had posted submissions online, and other Senators shared submissions which they got their hands on, but it is not an especially effective way to do business that we creep around and see what we can find out ourselves online based on who shouted the loudest about putting in submissions. It is worrying that the public consultation submissions have not been made available online during this two-week period. I know this is a tight timeframe in which to get things done, and the Minister of State was landed with a very short period in which to do this. However, it does not seem the best way to do business and it is exasperating we do not have access to that and that it is likely we will not have access before this Bill finishes its journey in the two Houses.
It is not all criticism. I welcome the removal of the relevant persons section in the legislation to allow third-party appeals. I know the potential exclusion of third parties to appeal directly to the forestry appeals committee caused an enormous amount of consternation and fuss online. It was seen as exclusionary and against basic democratic principles given people ought to be able to engage in an appeals process in an area that affects them. I welcome the removal of the relevant persons section as it is vital we do not hinder the ability of invested and interested citizens to participate actively in planning decisions relating to the environment.
I also want to reflect on the alignment with the planning process. Senator Lynn Boylan went through this extremely eloquently and I am a bit more muddled on it. The heads of the Bill outlined that this Bill is intended to provide an Act to amend the Agricultural Appeals Act 2001 and to align the forestry licensing and appeals process with a similar planning process. To paraphrase An Taisce’s words, the disparity between the planning system and the existing forestry system is like day and night. The planning system in Ireland has a highly integrated framework stemming from a national planning framework, an implementation plan, regional planning guidelines and spatial strategies, and all of these inform our county development plans, zoning policies, objectives, local area plans and, ultimately, even individual applications for development. For example, we are currently trawling through the county development plan in County Meath, and obviously things have gone a bit askew with the Covid process. Nonetheless, there is an enormous amount of legislation, bodies of work and things we have to follow through. The whole system is complemented by comprehensive legislation and there is oversight from an independent appeals body, An Bord Pleanála, whose decisions and remit are meticulously set out in legislation and which, as has been referenced, is an entirely independent body. The public also has easy access to the planning documentation and decisions throughout this process.
This is in stark contrast to the forestry system, where there is one national programme, with no regional or local strategies for afforestation or felling. Information is also incredibly difficult to access for a member of the public. I concur with Senator Boylan’s statements around the 28 days and the impact this is going to have on members of the public being able to access information in a timely fashion and how they will be able to do that.
It seems to me the alignment provided by the heads of Bill just aligns with being able to pay fees to make an appeal and the requirement to have made a submission on the application to be able to appeal it. I have a concern that if fees are introduced for forestry appeals committee appeals, as is currently required within the planning process, this could take legitimate appeals out of the hands and financial means of most individuals.The Aarhus Convention has been mentioned here before. According to Article 9.4, administrative and judicial procedures relating to the environment should not be prohibitively expensive. I would like to know exactly how much these fees are going to cost. If someone is appealing against a number of different licences, how are these fees going to stack up and how is that going to impact individuals making appeals? There is a brief reference in the Bill suggesting that fees can be remunerated. I would go further and suggest that fees should absolutely be remunerated. We will be proposing an amendment to allow for this. At a minimum, fees should be remunerated if there simply has to be a fee system.
We welcome the effort to support jobs and deal with the chaos and backlog that the Minister of State has unfortunately inherited within this system. However, we have an issue with the process. A 24-hour turnaround time on a Bill, while it seems to be the standard way we do things in the Seanad, is not best legislative process. In one House, the Government is saying sick pay for all is not a priority during a global pandemic and it is going to kick that to touch for six months. However, it is going to push this Bill through because it says it wants to be able to support workers. We also need to make sure that those workers have access to sick pay over those six months.
I welcome that the Minister of State has taken on board feedback from the consultation even if none of us has seen the submissions. That engagement is positive but I hope it does not become standard that we do not have access to the submissions. As I said, the Labour Party will be submitting amendments to the Bill, specifically in respect of the remuneration of fees if the appeals are not seen as frivolous or vexatious. We will engage constructively with this Bill and will engage with the Minister of State on any upcoming Bills in respect of forestry. We recognise the deep importance of forestry in Ireland for our biodiversity, carbon, agriculture and all of those issues. We look forward to working with the Minister of State in the future on this.
I congratulate the Leas-Chathaoirleach on his new role. Having worked with him at the Council of Europe, I know he will bring great gravitas and thought to it. I welcome the Minister of State to the Seanad, a space where she has been before. However, I have to join with everybody to say it is unfortunate that in the first meeting we have here, the Minister of State is contributing to a practice we have seen of rushing through legislation and indeed shortcircuiting due legislative scrutiny. It has been pointed out that the Bill was circulated yesterday. The deadline for amendments was today. A very important issue is that this deadline applies to amendments for both Committee and Report Stage. Again, a key part of any legislative process is that on Committee Stage we bring forward our proposals, the Government answers the questions and concerns raised, and then there is a period in which we reflect and perhaps revise or change, taking on board points the Minister may have made, and put forward revised amendments. Indeed, the Minister may take on board valid points that are made on Committee Stage and reflect them in his or her own Report Stage amendments. That process has not been allowed for. Committee and Report Stages will be taken together. In that context, since she has denied herself the opportunity to go and seek advice and reflect on proposals, if there is something that is positive and seems to have merit I would encourage the Minister of State to accept it. If she needs to reflect on it in the Dáil she may do so. Otherwise she is effectively making our proposing of amendments meaningless. Nonetheless I will propose a number of amendments.
I would also like to join colleagues in highlighting the concerns around the consultation process, its abbreviated nature and the fact that submissions were not made available. There are some interesting statistics and figures. We have had some misleading information, unfortunately, even in the briefing documents that were circulated. One of the briefing documents sent to Oireachtas Members told us that the decision of the forestry appeals committee is final. We know it is not final because of course any appellant has the right of recourse to the High Court and normal judicial process under the Aarhus Convention. It is slightly misleading and discouraging in that regard.I was informed that most of these appeals were not successful, so let us consider the figures. More than 50% in 2018 and 2019 resulted in a change or withdrawal of the licence. People are doing the work that the State should be doing by having an effective and proper forestry process, which means that individuals do not have to make appeals because they are submitting proper and appropriate applications and are being supported in doing so.
We have been told about the urgency of the Bill and that it is being rushed because of the crisis in the sector, including for employment therein. There will also be a crisis in January when Brexit happens, given that 80% of the sector's market is in the UK. I respectfully suggest that a Band-Aid of eroding regulation and legal processes is not what is needed and that a just transition plan for the forestry sector, one that recognises that it will face serious economic challenges within just a few months, might be more appropriate. If there is a sector that is struggling, it is within the bounds of the Government's remit to direct resources to same and give funding to its workers and those who invest in it to allow them to transition to different models.
Ireland has the second smallest forest cover in the EU at 11%. These facts are agreed on by the entire Oireachtas. They were cited in a Green Party motion tabled in the previous Oireachtas, where they were accepted without amendment by all parties. As such, these are not my opinions, but the agreed facts. Our 11% compares with a European average of 30% and the majority of our forests are monocultures. State forestry policy has predominantly been based on a rotation, clear fell and replant cycle using monocultures. Aspects of the current afforestation model have in some cases had negative impacts on local communities, biodiversity, water quality and landscapes.
The gravity of the global biodiversity crisis, including the loss of species - 68% of species have been lost in a very short period - and important populations of species, the undermining of ecosystems, the vital role of land use in the hydrological cycle, the objectives of water quality under the EU water framework directive, the vulnerability of even-aged monoculture plantations to disease, fire and windthrow, the role that changed land use practices must play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and sequestering carbon in the long term, the essential role that afforestation, land use and soil carbon management must play in Ireland's national energy and climate plan, the commitments that Ireland has entered into in the context of Natura 2000 and the EU birds and habitats directives and our failure to meet those are all acknowledged facts. These formed part of what the whole Oireachtas agreed had led us to a time when we had to move to the next stage of Irish forestry and address the challenges ahead. This is the position that we all took last year, yet we are seeing a significant push to fast-track business as usual and everything that is in the system currently. This Bill is literally about having as many horses as possible bolt before we consider a door-closing strategy somewhere down the line.
Even if the Minister of State had wanted to address a specific issue, she could have introduced a Bill that gave additional resources to the forestry appeals committee and then allowed for a further division of resources. She could have introduced a Bill that represented decent strategies for dealing with the fundamental underlying facts. If we are really discussing a crisis in wood supply, the Bill could have contained measures on allowing thinning licences to be fast-tracked over clear felling licences. The choice could have been made to narrow the Bill solely to the question of felling instead of including the issue of planting.We know that planting is predominantly that of Sitka and monoculture. With every planting that takes place through a fast-tracked forestry appeals committee decision, that is ten, 15 or 20 years in which that ground, which will have been planted under the old system, will not be able to reflect any future forestry policy. The ground is being given and lost. Despite suggestions to the contrary, a large portion of these appeals have been upheld because the committee has taken these issues seriously.
Wangari Maathai from Kenya, who won the Nobel Prize for her work on the promotion and protection of forests, stated, "You cannot protect the environment unless you empower people, you inform them and you help them understand that these resources are their own, that they must protect them." The people who are taking appeals are taking seriously that call to action. They are doing their work in respect of the protection of the environment. That the results have shown licences having been overturned or changed shows they have serious credibility in what they have done.
In the case of a Bill such as this that relates to due legal process and to access to justice under the Aarhus Convention, even if it is the best Bill in the world, which it is not, it is especially important that it show due legislative process. The Minister of State is trying to assure us there will be due regard for the law and access to justice, yet we are skipping pre-legislative scrutiny and the Government is short-circuiting legislative scrutiny within this House. They are real concerns.
I welcome, as others have, the removal of the relevant persons category, which is very important, but there is still no clarity on fees. We need to be assured there will be no fees. There is no clarity because there are still rules and regulations that both the forestry appeals committee and the Minister may put into place, and it is unclear as to whether those rules and regulations will exclude any category of person in the future. The Minister of State might assure us. Will they create obstacles?
I come to my final point, although there are many other important issues that we will have an opportunity to debate. Perhaps the most egregious aspect of the Bill was not in the agricultural appeals Bill or the heads of Bill that were sent for consultation but was instead added to the Bill we received last night. It is a new suggestion that when the Minister makes any policy directives about what appeals are important, he or she, "shall have regard to the need to ensure an economically and environmentally sustainable yield of forest goods and services in the State." This undermines the fact that environmental services may be more important. It refers to a "yield", which is extractive language. The Mackinnon report talked about the tension between forestry production and carbon sequestration-----
-----because not all trees do the same thing. I will table nine amendments to that section. I urge the Minister of State to accept one of them or to produce one of her own. I ask her please to consider her own forestry plan.
I welcome the Leas-Chathaoirleach to his new role and look forward to working with him this term. I also welcome my colleague the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, and thank her for bringing the Bill to the House. It is a really important occasion. As the leader of the Green Party in this House, it is important that I speak to the Bill. Most Senators will know me at this stage and know I have absolutely no problem standing in the Chamber and criticising the Government. I did it last Friday and they all welcomed my contribution, and I would have no problem doing that today too. I would have no problem saying I do not agree with the Bill but, fundamentally, I do. I take the point that we could have included felling only, but we are talking about afforestation, about the second lowest tree cover in Europe and, as Senator Murphy noted, about a 35% reduction in our plantation compared with this time last year.It is, therefore, not just about felling.
It would be great if we could just walk in here with a national forestry programme and have everyone sign on the dotted line but, as both a Senator and a member of the Green Party, I do not believe that is the way to go. If one really wants to develop a national forestry programme, one needs stakeholder engagement over a longer period. We are here because of a lack of political will across the Houses in respect of forestry and land use. That is why we find ourselves in this position. I just do not buy the argument that we are not in an emergency. Two things have to come together. We need to bring people with us if we are truly going to transform this country. From what I have heard from everybody, it is clear that we do want to transform the country and to have biodiversity. Those who work in industry also have families and children and I believe they also buy into the idea of avoiding the monocultural tree cover we have seen up to this point.
We are not fast-tracking appeals but even if we are to continue with this Bill and speed up the appeals process, does that mean that all of these appeals will suddenly fail? It absolutely does not. It does not make sense to say that, just because appeals are processed more quickly, they will all fail and that nobody's point of view will be taken on board. It does not mean that. It means that the three-year backlog will be reduced. There were 14 appeals in 2017 and 402 so far this year. Something has to give. There has to be some level of practicality.
One of my colleagues here spent nine of his ten minutes talking about something which did not even substantially relate to the Bill. He was criticising the fact that Green Party members had made submissions. I am really delighted they did. I spoke to members and asked them to ensure they put in submissions. Given that there were nearly 9,000 submissions, the argument that this was not proper stakeholder engagement is defunct. As I have said, I am delighted that these people made submissions. I hope these have contributed to the changes to the legislation. I welcome the change made as regards the relevant person.
If we are talking about environmental justice, we have to look at the jobs affected. If we lose those jobs, how are we then going to get a new forestry programme up and running? We all engaged with that stakeholder engagement but where will the people to work in the industry be? They will be gone because we did not act. This is the moment for us to act. There may be fees but fees are charged across the board in respect of planning, as I believe they should be. I also believe, however, that it is the appellants themselves who lose out by sitting in an appeals process for two and a half years. It is to all of our benefit. For jobs, our countryside, our own well-being and those making appeals, we should all get on board with this. The Bill takes on board the very real concerns I have heard from my own constituents and deals with them.
Fundamentally, what we need is a new forestry programme. That is committed to in the programme for Government. I take great issue with some of the patronising comments made here which suggested that Green Party members have been wheeled out to push through legislation. I am sorry but I happen to know the background of those involved and we are fundamentally behind this Bill because it is the right thing to do for the planet and for the environment. That is why we are presenting it.
I welcome the Minister of State. I come from County Wicklow, which has been at the heart of forestry.It has been a huge and integral part of our economy, but more than that, generations of families have earned their living from forestry for decades.
This legislation cannot come quickly enough. The forestry industry is in crisis. The Minister of State was in Shillelagh last week, in the None-So-Hardy nurseries, and she saw the work they are doing there. It was devastating to see on RTÉ the other night a whole refrigerated unit full of two-year-old oak trees that were going to be destroyed because we are not replanting. The reason we are not replanting is that we are not felling.
Something is equally wrong with the system when we go from 14 appeals to more than 400. Something is not working when that happens, or when we go from 1% or 2% of cases being appealed to 100%. That system is not working either.
I mentioned None-So-Hardy nursery, but we also have a huge sawmill in Woodfab Timber in Aughrim. We have a huge industry in the processing sector in Wicklow. Wicklow takes trees from growth all the way to building homes here in Dublin as well as in Wicklow itself. Wicklow will take a sapling and deliver a roof truss to somebody's house. Everybody here in Dublin probably has a piece of garden furniture that was manufactured in Woodfab in Aughrim. We are talking about bringing that industry to a close before Christmas. This crisis has been ignored and I am only too delighted to see that this is being put on an emergency footing because that is what is needed to save these jobs. We are talking about 12,000 jobs nationally, but forestry is also an integral part of our society in Wicklow.
I welcome the splitting of the commission. We need to start getting through the workload that is presented to us to resolve the appeals process.
Much has been made of the clause relating to relevant persons and there were mixed views on it. One minute I was happy that it was gone and the next I was thinking that maybe we should have left it in. It is an issue in Ireland depending on whether we are talking about licence appeals or planning appeals. Should we deal with the issue of relevant persons or ignore it? If we could confine it to relevant persons who are directly affected by either planning permission or a felling licence, the system might work better than what is happening at the moment, where 100% of our forestry licences are being appealed by certain individuals who control the system. The Minister of State has taken that part out of the Bill. I welcome that in one way, but looking at the list of people who qualified to appeal in the draft Bill, not too many were left out of it. I am not too sure about that issue.
As regards the fees, from what I am hearing I understand they will be along the lines of the planning system, with a charge of €20 for an observation and €200 for an appeal. That is not too onerous for people who are genuinely concerned about forestry, felling licences and reforestation and who have genuine concerns about matters that affect them directly.
I also welcome the ecologists being employed by the Department to try to deal with this matter. Perhaps the Minister of State can confirm that has happened. There were only one or two ecologists trying to deal with all these felling licences and I think that number has been significantly improved in recent months. That too will help the whole process. I am not against anybody appealing a decision or making an observation. People's livelihoods are at risk here. People are abusing the system as it stands at the moment and this directly affects the lives of people in my county. I welcome this legislation.
Wicklow has the second-highest rate of density of forestation in the country, with 17.9% of its landmass, or 36,000 ha, made up of forestry. We have lived with that all our lives. I hear about the monoculture and I can understand why that is a problem, but in Wicklow we have started to address it and are seeing diversification of planting. The Minister of State would have seen that in None-So-Hardy nursery in Shillelagh in Wicklow. It was devastating to see on the news the other night the number of oak saplings that will be destroyed because we have nowhere to plant them due to this crisis. I welcome this emergency legislation.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House again. It is fantastic to have a Minister of State who is also a Seanad colleague in the House presenting the Bill. While some on the opposite side of the House have been criticising the Minister of State for the haste with which she has brought forward the Bill, I commend her and her officials on the speed and haste in bringing forward the Bill.
The Bill is about protecting jobs and securing an industry that gives a contribution of €2.3 billion to the Irish Exchequer with the creation of 12,000 jobs across the State. In my county of Waterford, 470 jobs are reliant on forestry, and in the south east the total is approximately 2,000 jobs.
It is a significant concern for me that we have such a backlog in appeals before the forestry appeals committee. A briefing on the Bill was held last week on Zoom for Oireachtas Members. I compliment the Minister of State on hosting that briefing. It was useful and I am keen to see such briefings continue with other legislation. At the briefing it was stated that approximately 10% of licences were appealed in the past whereas now essentially 100% are being appealed. The figures given by the Minister of State in her speech included the fact that appeals of licences have gone from 14 in 2017 to 402 to date in 2020. That is a 2,771% increase in appeals. This has clearly had the effect of causing a significant backlog in the appeals process. It is up to us as legislators to address that and this is what the Bill is seeking to achieve.
I welcome the provision that the forestry appeals committee can determine an appeal without the need for an oral hearing unless it considers it necessary to conduct one to determine an appeal fairly. I also welcome the provision to allow for the dismissal of a vexatious appeal. The most considerable changes are obviously with regard to reducing the quorum to two members and the ability of the Minister to be able to appoint deputy chairpersons to the forestry appeals committee. I echo the comments of my colleagues in respect of the fee structure. The provision addressing this is also welcome because it aligns the process with other planning processes. That provision should not be amended. I welcome it wholeheartedly.
There is urgency to this matter. I know the Minister of State is treating it seriously and the seriousness cannot be overstated. I have had discussions where concerns have been expressed to me by Smartply in Waterford. Smartply is a significant company with more than 150 employees in the Port of Waterford at Belview. The company creates high-quality product for the national and international market. However, the company is fast running out of raw materials. My colleague, Senator Lombard, mentioned the importation of material from Scotland. This is simply an untenable position for a country like Ireland. The fact that our mills throughout the country are running out of raw materials means this has to be addressed with urgency.I compliment the Minister of State and her officials for bringing this Bill to the House with haste. Forestry is a fantastic indigenous industry and it is up to us as legislators to protect the 12,000 jobs across the country. I will support the Bill and hope that others in both Houses will do likewise.
I compliment the Leas-Chathaoirleach on his elevation, which is a most appropriate appointment.
I am astonished that a Green Party Minister of State would introduce legislation of this kind to the House. I recall the Heritage Bill some years ago when I was the only person to object to the introduction of legislation that would threaten many of the most endangered wild bird species. I got no support whatever on the first occasion I raised this and that was very worrying. It is astonishing that this Bill should be rushed through at such breakneck speed. Changes were made last night. It is almost impossible, at least extremely difficult, to table amendments to take account of the changes in the Bill. We did not know what we were dealing with; it was a completely amorphous body and required great scrutiny to get through it.
I objected when charges were introduced in planning. I did not want it and I was strongly supported by the Green Party in objecting to them. What has happened to change this in the meantime? To take Committee and Report Stages together is a real abrogation of the democratic process and I deplore it as I do the lack of pre-legislative scrutiny. Then there is the 6 p.m. deadline for getting amendments in. It is astonishing that we be given 12 hours to submit amendments for this sort of business.
The business of Sitka spruce should be addressed. The Sitka spruce is a foreign tree. The plantations introduce a very dangerous acidic element to water and so on.
I am not anti-forestry. A connection of mine, the late Lord Castletown, was very enthusiastic about planting and he planted his own estates across the Slieve Bloom mountains in the early years of the last century. In my own neck of the woods, in County Laois, the Mountrath sawmills is a very important employer. I am not averse to the sector. It is very interesting that of the submissions which objected to the Bill, 94.5% came from the public. That is something that needs to be taken into account. There is a strong interest among the public on this matter.
The Bill appears to have been introduced as a result of a recent judgment which identifies a failure of the forestry licensing sector of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to carry out impact assessments that require compliance with the environmental impact assessment, EIA, directive, the habitats directive and the birds directive as part of the licensing regime. The negative impact this failure has had on agricultural health, environmental health, and public health has so far been unquantified due to lack of assessment. We cannot change those negative impacts and historical degradation of a multitude of human, animal, plant and bird habitats. As it stands, the agricultural sector is already under huge pressures due to failures to environmentally assess other impacts in other schemes such as soil degradation from toxic pollutants and microplastic in sewage sludge for example.
Our agri industry is central to our economy and even aside from environmental and public health concerns raised by the forestry sector our important agri sectors should be protected from further impacts. To hide from impacts that the forestry industry may have on the environment will only cause the hastening of the collapse of other sectors which are facing multiple threats including reduction in pollinators, invasive species, and climate change. Departments must stop looking at sectoral management of industries and instead have cross-sector management and impact plans so that all sectors increase viability and production.
Ireland is a party to Forest Europe which incorporates the Rio forest principles. It is a pan-European ministerial level voluntary political process for the promotion of sustainable management of European forests.I am quoting from the United Nations Forest Principles, Article 2(c) of which state, "The provision of timely, reliable and accurate information on forests and forest ecosystems is essential for public understanding and informed decision-making and should be ensured." The principles recommend in Article 2(d) that, "Governments should promote and provide opportunities for the participation of interested parties ... in the development, implementation ... of national forest policies."
Public participation increases public awareness of forests and forestry, enhances social acceptance of sustainable forest management and shares costs and benefits in a fair and equitable way. It can contribute to the reduction of forest conflicts and nurture a positive relationship. Participatory forest management has become a widely accepted solution to forestry problems.
Any person interested enough to make a submission should be allowed to fully participate in the process. It is extraordinary that information is being withheld with respect to an index of submissions. The knowledge that people may bring can only help to inform the committee. The backlog will eventually be processed and the system will be better for the new requirements relating to environmental impact assessment, EIA. For the time being the appropriate action would be to employ ecological experts to help process the EIA sections of the licence applications.
The fact remains that to date, the applications lodged were not compatible with the law. If there is a backlog in the criminal courts, we do not restrict who can be a juror in order to speed up the deliberation process, nor do we dictate that only those with financial means can be a juror. This would cause a mistrial. In the same vein, restricting who can appeal a decision means the appeal can never be valid. It is a wholly unreasonable proposition. The public should be seen as a resource to be utilised and not as an obstacle to be overcome.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit. It has been noted that the Bill is somewhat rushed but I know it has been discussed over a period. I acknowledge the public consultation that took place in August and I commend the Minister of State on it. It generated a level of interest and as others have said there were just about shy of 9,000 submissions. That demonstrates the interest in this area.
The forestry sector is important in Ireland for a number of reasons. As a country, we must increase forestry as we know the benefit of afforestation in creating carbon sinks for our climate strategy. We welcome that. We must plant more trees and a wider variety of them. I previously argued, as others have, for an increase in the native broadleaf trees and suggested that aside from specific plantations, native species should be incorporated into commercial plantations where the land is suitable for it around the boundaries or in specific areas, such as in riparian zones along lakes or waterways.
I acknowledge one of the great trees that we had, the ash tree, and the Minister of State's predecessor, the late former Deputy Shane McEntee, broke that news of it being affected by disease a number of years ago. It is depressing to see the visible impact across our countryside on our ash trees arising from dieback.
The forestry sector is significant for rural communities, contributing approximately €3.2 billion to our economy each year, supporting up to 12,000 jobs, such as those in ECC at Corr na Móna in Galway. It is a very large employer in an area of north Connemara, south Mayo and beyond. The industry should provide a good supply of timber, which is so crucial to housing construction, including products like pallets and fencing, as well as other sectors such as furniture manufacturing. The furniture manufacturing sector does not attract much attention but it has great potential, as exemplified by the National Centre for Excellence in Furniture Design and Technology in Galway and Mayo Institute of Technology at Letterfrack. It is a world class facility dependent on a supply of timber and other raw materials and I am sure at some stage the Minister of State will get the chance to come out and visit Letterfrack.
The forestry sector is also important for tourism, including nature-based and adventure-based tourism, as it provides recreation spaces and materials for parks like the Wildlands, a new adventure destination in Moycullen, County Galway, that opened this summer. I hope we will see that business creating more employment.
It is clear how important forestry is to Ireland and, by extension, how important is this legislation.The backlogs in the forestry licensing system need to be addressed urgently, particularly in view of the fact that the logjam is having serious implications for supplies going forward. The Irish customer base is looking abroad for supplies and is replacing Irish-grown timber, which is regrettable. Many companies are advance buying at this time of year, and perhaps purchasing up to two thirds of their supplies for the 2021 season. Some timber mills are even running out of supplies. The situation is urgent, which is why I welcome the bringing forward of this Bill and its passage in this House and the Lower House.
On the one hand, there is the issue of resources. I am pleased with the provisions in the Bill that will enable the recruitment of extra members of the Forestry Appeals Commission, the appointment of deputy chairpersons and facilitate the committee to sit on a subdivided basis. These proposals should enable a speedier licensing process while still upholding the important right to question an appeals decision.
On the other hand, there is the delay as a result of the additional environmental obligations arising out of the Forestry Act 2014. Most applications in the forestry sector now have to undergo second-stage appropriate assessment, a process that involves specific analysis of a site to ensure compliance with environmental laws. This step is important to assess the impact, if any, of a forestry licence on a designated site. While the Department has increased its staffing to include 14 full-time ecologists, it is clear further resources and reforms are needed.
As a former Minister of State with responsibility for inland fisheries, I know the importance of the location and the processes of clear felling in the context of the possible impact on water quality, something that was particularly in evident at Lough Corrib and other lakes over the years. It is right and proper that we have these environmental regulations but, again, there is that balance between having the right of appeal and also ensuring that we have a supply of the raw material necessary. It is a balancing act.
The concept of a relevant person, which is the need for a person to have made a submission in order to submit an appeal, arose out of a desire to align the process with the planning process, and I do not believe it was an attempt to exclude people. However, it is important that the balance be struck. We all know of projects and developments that would improve quality of life around the country for citizens and communities but that have been the target of spurious and irrelevant objections from people with no connections to a particular county, and from people not affected in any way by the problems which the project aims to alleviate. We have had serial objectors to an array of projects. Despite enjoying privilege in this House, I will not name anyone, but many people know particular individuals who will object to everything and anything. If we like, they class themselves as professional objectors, which is a concern.
As others have said, the fees will not deter genuine objectors who can pay a certain amount of money in the knowledge that what they have to say will be taken on board by an appeals committee. However, a fee will deter serial objectors or certainly make them think twice - those who object to everything and anything. As I have said, coming from Galway, where major projects have been delayed and stopped by serial objectors, I am particularly strong on that.
At present, neither the forestry licensing system nor the appeals system are working for anybody. They are not working for the stakeholders, the businesses, the workers, the landowners, the communities involved in the sector or the parties with genuine and sincere concerns regarding applications. In that context, this legislation is important and must be enacted without delay.
As I said, I acknowledge the commitment of the Minister of State in bringing the Bill forward and in terms of the consultation process in August. I believe this is important legislation that has been much talked about. It will give the opportunity to speed up the process while still allowing genuine people to make appeals, but it will also, hopefully, deter spurious objectors in what is a very important sector for rural Ireland.
I welcome the opportunity to have a conversation about this Bill. I compliment the Minister of State on her choice of face mask. I think it is very appropriate that it depicts native woodland.
This is important legislation. We all recognise the necessity to clear the backlog of applications for various different licences. I am taken to a large extent by the contact that has been made with me by timber mills, the construction sector and other operations that will require a supply of timber.There is deep concern among them that if we do not address this pipeline rapidly, there will be further pressure on our economic activity. I do not think anybody here needs me to go on any further about the implications for our economy as a result of the Covid pandemic.
While there is a need to ensure the supply of timber, we need to have a robust regime in place. I come from a county that has seen many serial objections to planning and forestry at every possible stage. There are people for whom it is almost a way of life. There is often an appropriate reaction to that but there is often an overreaction too. We have to be careful and balance our approach when we are dealing with what we see as serial objectors or nuisance objectors, we do not demonise every objector. There are legitimate and valid objections that need to be made.
As a former spokesman for my party in the other House, I was often, from a climate change perspective, taken by people's reactions when I talked about the necessity for more planting of trees. There were calls from Leitrim and Sligo, and from parts of my own constituency, where communities felt that there was an over-concentration of planting, especially of conifers, and that was having an impact on the soil, rivers and the general visual amenity of the area, with encroachment onto arable land that might be better served without that particular species. I have always had the view that we need a different approach to the growing of trees in this country. We need more native species and we need to see more land set aside for the growth of trees from a carbon capture perspective, without looking at the ultimate commercialisation relating to the production of timber at the end. We need to look at it purely as a resource that is a carbon sink. Hopefully the Minister of State will be able to advance that with her own views and ideas on this area. That is another sector that we can do much more in.
The purpose of this Bill in the first instance is to ensure that we address the crisis, which I support wholeheartedly. I support trying to reduce and limit the practice of what are often considered vexatious or serial objections, while at the same time ensuring that we do not throw the baby out with the bathwater. There is a legitimate necessity in some cases to object for a number of reasons. People are entitled to a certain visual amenity in an area. There are others who believe in the potential for a community to be maintained and developed and that certain plantations would impact on that. In the minds of some, certain rural areas were almost written off because of the desire of so many to move away from rural areas into the cities.
There is much to be learned from the current pandemic and we may not know what the outcome of that will be for a long time. There seems to be greater recognition that not everybody needs to live on top of each other in densely packed cities to have a meaningful work environment. The advances in technology that we have all embraced in recent weeks and months are a clear recognition that we do not need to sit in cars and public transport for hours each day. People can have the experience of living in more rural settings while at the same time participating actively in urban life, perhaps on a less frequent basis, but they would be able to hold down jobs in major urban centres while principally bringing their family up or living in a more rural setting. I look forward to the passage of this Bill but I do not think that it should signal an end to the process of afforestation and how we might manage it for the benefit not just of the people who own the land, but also the people who live in the area and, importantly, the climate generally.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit agus tá súil agam go n-éireoidh go geal léi ina ról nua.
I welcome the Bill in general terms. It addresses what has grown into a serious problem in recent years. With the very broad right of appeal that exists against the issuing of licences in this area, and felling licences, virtually anybody can challenge a decision. As a result, there is a backlog of appeals that now stands at over two years, which has knock-on effects in many areas. For example, it limits the supply of timber for home building. It also has an impact on people who have planted trees on their land because they cannot reap a financial dividend as a result of delays due to these appeals. One is not talking about big farmers in every case. One could be talking about people with small enough parcels of land who made an investment and must wait to reap the necessary dividend after a period of time. They are being held up.
One thing that the Minister of State did not reference in her speech was how soon we can expect the backlog to be lifted. I am not just talking about the backlog caused by 100% appeals but also, as she acknowledged, the increasing delay in the issuing of licences in the first place. I know steps have been made and ecology people have been appointed, but I know of a case in which a 20-year investment has been held up. In April 2019, an application for a felling licence was made yet they still have not heard anything apart from an initial acknowledgment of the application. How soon is it reasonable for people - big and small players - to expect their cases to be dealt with in that kind of scenario?
I was very struck by what Senator Lombard said when he mentioned that builders cannot acquire 6 in. by 3 in. planks due to the delay in granting felling licences, that there is a disastrous bottleneck in the forestry and timber industry, and that instead of locally produced and suppled timber it will have to be imported from Scotland. I recall that the Minister of State mentioned Scotland in her speech. She said that the right of third parties to appeal is rare across Europe and instanced Scotland, which is pretty ironic. It brings out the tension that exists here between different legitimate aspirations. On the one hand, there is the aspiration to hold decision-makers, businesspeople and foresters to account and the aspiration to protect the environment and promote environmental diversity. To be honest, these aspirations are in tension with the need to protect and develop our timber industry and the need to protect jobs, livelihoods and people's way of life. In the same way that I sympathise with Senator McGreehan's enthusiasm for native trees, we must acknowledge that there is a reason that farmers and others plant Sitka spruce. A dairy farmer who wants to make money will have Friesian cows or maybe Montbéliarde cows if he has a more exalted taste, and he will not buy or breed Aberdeen Angus or Charolais for milking. That is why growers opt to plant Sitka spruce and the like. I sympathise with the Senator. I agree that we need to promote our native species and establish carbon sinks.
There was something for everyone in the contribution made by Senator Dooley. At the same time we are at a time in our economy and our country when we simply must put Irish economic and social life at the centre and protect people's economic well-being.
This legislation is long overdue. I do not like rushed legislation but where was the previous Government? This problem has existed since 2018. The Minister of State cited to us the growing levels of appeals set against the paltry number of resolved cases year-on-year and getting worse year after year.
Regarding the mass appealing of licences, where was the previous Government? Senator Cummins was the first to mention the notion of vexatious appeals and this legislation rightly provides for the possibility of dismissing such appeals. When 100% of licences are appealed, one must think that there is an element of vexatious activity going on. That is simply a fact.It is not even an opinion at this stage. I say that in full knowledge and respect of the fact that we cannot just let people go off and do whatever they want. There are legitimate interests to be protected and NGOs have an important role in securing those legitimate interests, but in this case the facts speak for themselves. For that and other reasons, it is not at all unreasonable to have a charge for those who are challenging decisions, although I would support the rights of members of local authorities not to be subject to such a charge because they have a particular role in acting in the public interest. As a general rule, however, we should all be ready to pay for our principles sometimes, at least to some extent.
I thank the Senator for that concluding remark. I have four Senators offering and Senator O'Reilly, in his magnanimous nature, has said he will give way to all of his colleagues. I have Senators Mullen, Carrigy, Ahearn and Keogan.
I will not take the full five minutes in order to accommodate everyone. I welcome the Minister of State into what is her Chamber and the Chamber of the rest of us. It is good for politics that we have one of our own sitting at the Cabinet table. It is long overdue and already the Minister of State is doing a fantastic job.
One of the first Bills to come before us in this new Seanad is an important one. I would agree with lot of the arguments and articulations that have been expressed here today. The forestry industry has been the poor relation to a large extent over the years, and that is probably the reason we find ourselves in the situation we are in, where the legislation has not been updated and upgraded in the way it should have been. This is having direct and immediate consequences, not just for people who are trying to plant or benefit from getting the right crop but also for the industry. I was speaking to a builder's providers in Clare over the weekend and it is importing timber from Sweden, which is shocking when we have the raw material here.
There are two phases to this. The first is the legislation that we are dealing with today, which is critical and necessary. It is rushed but sometimes legislation has to be rushed in the national interest and this is one of those occasions. The second phase is the review the Minister of State has spoken about. That review has to be root and branch, if Members will pardon the pun. It has to be comprehensive and detailed and it has to reflect the industry in the modern world. The timber industry and the growing of trees will be part of our being and landscape going forward. It has to be done in an appropriate way, taking into consideration both the worries and aspirations of people. I look forward to that review and I have no doubt that this House will participate fully in same.
I welcome the Minister of State to her Chamber. It is apt that our first sitting in the Seanad Chamber has our own Minister of State present. I also welcome this Bill that is being put forward.
It has been mentioned a number of times today that the Bill is being brought forward in a speedy manner and that is a good thing. This industry has gone down 35% in the past year. If anything needs to be done, it needs to be done in a speedy manner and that is hugely welcome. We are talking about an industry that provides 12,000 jobs throughout the country and those jobs are in rural areas like mine in Tipperary. This industry contributes to the economy to the point of about €2.3 billion per year. All things being equal, that is expected to double by 2035. In 2018, Ireland produced wood products containing the equivalent of 1.9 tonnes of CO2.Ireland has one of the world's most technologically advanced timber industries. This industry has the potential to move forward and the potential to be a leading sector in Ireland, and certainly in rural Ireland. We have come to a stage where we are at a crisis. We are at a stage where things cannot move forward because, essentially, people are able to appeal and hold up the process for an extraordinary length of time. I welcome that the Bill has been brought forward to try to deal with that in some cases. We are getting to a situation where it is just not tenable anymore. This is not a medium or long-term crisis. This crisis is here and now.
I have listened to many Senators speak to the Bill and on this side of the House they are all of the same view. Simple things such as having a fee for people to appeal will dramatically change the appeals process. There are one or two people in the whole country who are holding up 100% of the cases going forward. By having a fee, if it goes along the lines of normal appeals processes of €200 going towards An Bord Pleanála, I would consider that a reasonable request. If the case is genuine and the person fully believes in what he or she is appealing, then he or she would be willing to pay the fee. For people who appeal absolutely everything and hold up cases across the State, this will be a deterrent to those we call "continuous appealers". I hugely welcome the measure.
We are in a situation whereby the industry has dropped so much that we will now import timber from Scotland, which is not acceptable. We should not have a situation where this happens. This is all because of a delay from our side, but a delay nonetheless.
It is strange that when one looks at the appeals put in, essentially it is the same people who appeal deforestation and the cutting of trees in countries around the world, these are the same people who are now delaying the growth of trees and are holding up cases across the State. I believe this fee will be a deterrent to what we call "continuous appealers". There is a contradiction in that.
We should be promoting the fact that this is good for the environment and is good for the State. It is good for many areas, including my own area in Tipperary. The Bill is also about saving jobs. There are 740 jobs in Tipperary connected to forestry. Sheehan Sawmills in Ballyporeen, just down the road from where I live, is a family-run business since 1979. They have been in business for 41 years. Dunne Sawmills in Drangan, just outside Fethard, has been in business for some 26 years. Such family-run businesses are in the heart of rural Ireland and they want to work and continue. All they need is the support from Government, and a Bill like this coming through as quickly as possible. I welcome the Bill and I thank the Minister of State for bringing it forward. The Bill has my full support.
I welcome the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, to the House today. I am delighted to be here in the Seanad Chamber for the first time.
The Bill is, ultimately, about jobs and I will support it. It might not be too welcome to the Green Party but it will certainly get support from the Minister of State's Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Green Party colleagues. That is the price one must pay when in government as a smaller party.
This industry provides 12,000 jobs throughout rural communities, including those in my part of the country. I will not namecheck the various businesses around the country which have been in contact with me with regard to supporting the Bill today. It is all about jobs and how we are going to maintain and sustain these jobs going forward in this crisis.
The current crisis around licensing is crippling the industry. It is important that we deal with this matter here today. Data from the forestry appeals committee show that licences are being appealed at a rate of 40 to 50 per month. Some 1,500 licence applications are with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. Officials process nearly 100 applications per month, which means it takes close to 15 months to clear the queue, even if no other applications are made and before any appeals are submitted.Some of the owners of Ireland's sawmills describe being at a crisis point where they are struggling to know how they will retain their employees with their customers. This Bill will give them safety. Anyone in the State can appeal any forestry licence. It costs nothing to appeal and it is relatively straightforward to do so, so I welcome the charge and the change to that in the Bill. A recent analysis by the Business Post showed that one particular gentleman, a prominent environmentalist, had been involved in more than half of the appeals made against forestry licences in the past two and a half years. The appeals list from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine names him 351 times out of 624 appeals submitted in that period. This cannot continue. It has to stop. It is stalling progress and stopping our economy moving forward. This is a completely overlooked sector which is contributing to our economy. It is critical that this Bill is passed as quickly as possible and that it is implemented in full.
I welcome the Minister of State and wish her well in her appointment. Some Members have criticised the fact that she and her Department have swiftly brought this legislation before the House. I commend them on bringing the legislation so swiftly. We have a major issue in the forestry industry with jobs at risk and the knock-on effect it has on the building industry. We have vexatious appeals stalling the entire process and putting up to 12,000 jobs at risk. I particularly think of Glennon Brothers Timber from Longford, a family-run business founded in 1913 with more than 250 employees. I think of local lads in my own village, Fox Brothers Carpentry, who employ 20 people erecting timber frame housing. We are pushing and looking for the Government to put forward funding to increase our house building yet the supply of raw materials for house building has nearly come to nil and now we are looking at importing materials. This is about protecting jobs - it is as simple as that. I will be fully supporting the Bill. I ask that all other Members support it both here and in the Dáil.
I join in the warm welcome to the Minister of State. We take pride in her appointment in this House. It re-establishes an old precedent and should be a source of encouragement to some of our younger Senators that they might emulate this in the future. If I am right, the precedent goes back to Senator Dooge. I am not sure who was the last.
I welcome the legislation. There are all sorts of extraneous points we would all like to make but if I read it correctly, the legislation is effectively tidying up the appeals process. It is reforming and making the appeals process efficient and workable. That is from a situation where we have a totally non-existent appeals process in that we need a deputy chair of the appeals committee, we need to have sub-committees functioning, and we need to have a workable quorum on a given day. There is no way that any other body could function in the way it is currently functioning. It needs efficiencies in its operation. It is horrendous that we have the level of appeals that exists. It is not explicit or implicit in the legislation that we would in any way take away from the right to appeal. That is sacrosanct. Those who want to appeal for the right reasons would want an efficient outcome and an efficient system to respond to them. The only people who benefit from the current situation are those who just want to hold up the entire process for all sorts of vexatious purposes, to use the term used earlier. We at the point of importing timber now.It is unthinkable that this would become the norm and we have to thwart it. I exhort the Minister of State, although I think it is her plan, to make an holistic - for want of a better word - plan for forestry in this country. While we must address the balance between Sitka spruce, on the one hand, and oak trees and other native species, we also have to pay attention to the concentration. I do not think there is a Senator who would suggest taking lumps out of County Leitrim, for example, to plant trees and putting people out of the area. That is not the agenda. There has to be a process and a spatial development plan for forestry.
I have a background in farming, given that my family were farmers. On every farm, particularly in the area of Cavan, Longford and Leitrim, there will be 8 or 10 non-arable acres that could not only be planted, provide a shelter and have a beneficial effect on our environment as a carbon sink, but also add to the economy through timber production and so on. That needs active promotion and support. We have to promote our forestry in a spatial, regional and properly organised way. The jobs are crucial, and the numbers of jobs at issue are colossal.
We all tend to bring these matters to a parochial level but there is no great harm if we understand or relate to them in those terms. I know a Maguire family who are very entrepreneurial and enterprising. The mum sat on Cavan County Council with me and two of the brothers run a business in the felling and transporting of timber. I imagine the family will be known to Senator Carrigy. On the Cavan-Leitrim border, where one might say 20 jobs are the equivalent of 120 jobs in Dublin, their business provides in the region of 20 jobs. That is repeated throughout the country, so we have to address it.
I welcome the legislation and will support it. It is really important that we try to get our forestry industry functioning so we can fell and plant trees, yet we have to have a robust appeals system. The two aspects are not mutually exclusive. I urge the Minister of State to try to develop a cohesive, regionally based, worked out policy for forestry so that it is not concentrated in any one county or any set of parishes but rather is spread in a reasonable fashion. She should consider seriously what I say about incentivising farmers to plant what they are not using. The Government would meet all its forestry targets at once, apart from the developing of commercial forestry. Coillte is doing tremendous work near my home at the Castle Lake area of Bailieborough and the demesne there. It is doing great work with nature walks and so on. I commend all that.
The Bill is good and is a great start. I am very optimistic about what the Minister of State will do in this sphere. She has indicated today that she means business.
Before I call on the Minister of State to conclude, I join the Leas-Chathaoirleach and other colleagues in congratulating her on her appointment. As one of only five Senators to have been appointed a Minister of State or Minister, and as the first female Senator to do so, on our first day back in the Seanad Chamber since the election of the Twenty-sixth Seanad it is appropriate that she, as one of our colleagues, is addressing us. I ask her now to conclude Second Stage.
I thank the Cathaoirleach, the Leas-Chathaoirleach and all my fellow Senators for their contributions. I welcome the fact there has been a great deal of engagement from the House on this, which is very useful to me.
I reiterate that the purpose of amending the existing legislation is to improve the functioning of the forestry appeals system so that it will meet the needs of all the stakeholders involved. They range from appellants to foresters, and the whole way through. The proposals in the Bill will provide citizens with a full and open opportunity to make their views on forestry projects known to an independent and adequately resourced forestry appeals committee.I also believe these changes mean that timely decisions on such appeals by the FAC, which these changes aim to facilitate, will be a fair and just response to applicants and interested third parties.
I note the support I have received in the House for the Bill and thank the Senators who have spoken to that. I also appreciate there are concerns about the Bill. I am appreciative of those who have engaged with its details. On balance, in taking account of the public consultation exercise, I believe I have presented a Bill that reflects the majority support expressed but also expresses the main reservations submitted in the consultation.
I remind Senators Ahearn, Keogan and Carrigy thatthis is about job losses. This is urgent and that is what is driving the urgency of the Bill. In an ideal world we would fix the forestry programme, that would have a knock-on effect and we would have a process where nothing is appealed but unfortunately we are not in an ideal world. I have inherited this problem, which has escalated to the extent that jobs are on the line. I am not willing to gamble with those jobs by delaying the process. While I appreciate the concerns about the haste of the legislation, it is emergency legislation, in essence. It is a gamble I am not willing to take. However, I will listen to and read any amendments.
Senator Mullen raised the important issue of the attraction of spruce to farmers as a crop. If we want to diversify the type of tree we grow, we must address that. The next stage will be to see how we can encourage more diverse plantations, more diverse species and more continuous cover.
I welcome the acknowledgement of the public consultation. It was valuable and really well subscribed to, despite the timing and its short nature. It is not usual to put legislation to the public at an early stage. I understand the frustration that the submissions are not yet available. It takes time to redact email addresses from 8,000 or 9,000 submissions. The process is ongoing and they will be available as soon as possible. Once the submissions came in, the attention was on their content. Senators were issued, albeit quite late, with a report on the submissions this morning. I hope that has helped somewhat.
I hope I have addressed concerns about the speed of the legislation. People have raised concerns about fees. The payment of a fee is a long-standing requirement for other appeals boards such as An Bord Pleanála and the Aquaculture Licences Appeals Board. The intent is not to make it prohibitive. The fees will help in a small way to offset the cost of conducting the appeal. The appeals to the FAC are costing around €1,000 per appeal, which is quite costly. Taxpayers are paying for that now. The fee would only go towards a small portion of that.
On the nature of the appeals, until we opened the consultation up to July, approximately 30% of Coillte licences were appealed, for example. Between the opening of the consultation and the end of August, 100% of Coillte licences were appealed. That has increased the pressure on the FAC exponentially. With greater pressure on the committee, the legislation is now more badly needed.The implications of the forestry sector do not end, as many Senators highlighted, with the sawmills. There are knock-on effects. There is the plywood. There is the pallet-making. The pallet sector in Ireland is considerable and it has knock-on effects. For example, the personal protection equipment, PPE, that comes into the country or that we move around the country will be on a pallet. That wooden pallet is made. In fairness, if it is imported, it has come from somewhere else. However, we generate a great deal of pallet wood and it is vital across sectors, such as the food and drink sector. Pallets are everywhere. Anywhere there is a warehouse, anything in it is on a wooden pallet. That sector is importing wood now to make pallets. That is such an obvious issue that affects the whole supply chain. The reach of timber product in Ireland is far and wide. It is coming into sharp reality now. I am even wondering where a bit of plywood has come from or what have I got in my shed, is it Irish, etc. It is good to be aware of how important that sector is.
I do not want to dismiss the concerns about this Bill because they are completely valid. In fact, wider points were raised about forestry in general in the country and I would agree wholeheartedly with most of those. We need a different way to do forestry in this country. Senator Higgins referenced the Green Party's close-to-nature forestry motion which received cross-party support in the Dáil last year. In fact, the bulk of that makes up the bulk of the commitments on forestry in the programme for Government. It is ambitious. We got agreement in the programme for Government talks.
This particular piece of legislation was another piece - one part of the commitments made in regard to forestry. It is a programme for Government commitment. It is historic and it is based on legacy, but we are where we are. It would be irresponsible of me to ignore the crisis in the sector but by all means, I want to fix it. If we get this right and we develop a new system of and vision for forestry, we will hopefully get to that stage where we do not have appeals because the model is right and the licensing process is right and meets all the criteria. That is where I want to get to - a system where we do not need a busy appeals committee.
I welcome the engagement, even from those who are disappointed with this Bill, to engage further afterwards in developing a new policy for forestry. Senator Boyhan commented on the nature of Green Party members and councillors making submissions. As a party, we are fine with that. From a party perspective, we encourage that diversity in our party. It helps us come to better decisions. Neither I nor any of my Green Party colleagues have an issue with that. As I said, the priority was to examine those submissions. That, unfortunately, is why the submissions are not all up on a website to look at.
There were questions asked and I have made a note of them. I will get back with specific answers to those questions. I am afraid my notes are all over the shop here. All of this is new.
I thank the House for the engagement. I believe that this Bill will strengthen the forestry sector and the importance of that sector has to be appreciated. However, forestry can do more for our country. We are way behind on the levels. We have only 11% of our land in forestry. It is a pittance compared with most European countries and when one visits European countries, one is not necessarily crowded by trees. There is plenty of space. We have plenty of land to do it on. We should focus on those environmental and community needs.We have much to learn but we can have these conversations with people and learn from them. That needs to inform us moving forward. I look forward to doing that and to the Senators' engagement on it.