Monday, 1 February 2021
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I wish everyone a happy St. Brigid's Day. I thank the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, for coming to the House to discuss this important matter.
Notwithstanding the dreadful pandemic that our country continues to face, one issue continues to dominate the work of public representatives from every corner of our country, namely, illegal dumping. The problem is not confined to our remote beautiful countryside, although the problem there is at its worst. This problem can be found on the main streets of our cities, the main roads through our towns, as well as every secondary road and laneway in our country.
One positive outcome of this lockdown has been the number of our citizens who are out walking and exercising within the 5 km limit that is in place. However, this increase in those walking our streets and country roads has led to realisation of what we, as a nation, are doing to our environment. What people are seeing in greater numbers is simply environmental vandalism. Our main roads resemble advertising dumping grounds, as discarded packets, cups and boxes fight with one another for the little spots available on these roads and are constantly blown about in the wind. Our country lanes are now extensions of our landfill sites such is the amount of rubbish being illegally deposited there. Our farming community is constantly having to remove piled up rubbish from headlands, entrances and fields. Rubbish is just flung over ditches by those passing in vans or cars.
We try to sell this country as a beautiful unspoilt island with 40 shades of green and landscapes to die for. We have to intervene, however, as those green fields, those important city streets, our beautiful hills, those quaint country lanes, not to mention our precious bogland, will disappear under mountains of discarded fridges, sofas, tyres and household rubbish. These are all illegally dumped by those who consider themselves above the law and, for some bizarre reason, untouchable because they gave a person driving a van or a car a few bob to get rid of it.
My local authority, Kildare County Council, is now dealing with 40 to 50 incidents each week and is spending more than €3 million per year on mitigating matters. If this is replicated across our 31 local authorities, it means that approximately €90 million will be spent on this problem. This does not include the additional moneys the Department may have allocated and does not include the time and effort of the many volunteers who do their best to clean up after this unacceptable behaviour.
I am aware, from parliamentary replies from the Minister to Labour Party colleagues, of an anti-dumping awareness communication campaign entitled, Your Country, Your Waste. With respect, this is not working, however. I deal with the magnificent community wardens every single week which, thankfully, the Department's money has provided to local authorities to employ. They do a great job but in one case of which I am aware the wardens are on their fourth clean-up of an area within the last year. This location is not a rural backwater.
Local authorities need the Department's help. They need to know what is contained in the Minister's so-called anti-dumping toolkit for local authorities. The national campaign that I, along with many other public representatives, am looking for must include enforcement. I am aware of a person with a van being caught red-handed with illegal rubbish, heading out to our countryside to dump it. Three years later, there still has not been a prosecution. It is no wonder that those who give these people a few bob are not scared by the consequences. I have spoken to a large number of public representatives on this matter over the past number of weeks and months. They are all in agreement that a national campaign must come with enforcement. We have all read recent articles in which local authorities have been effectively warned not to use CCTV or other surveillance methods because of data protection issues.This problem is now so serious that I and others are looking at these data protection issues, and if legislation is needed, we will bring it forward.
I urge the Minister to address this issue. There should be no comfort in giving one's rubbish to a person who is obviously not registered. There must be no escape from prosecution for taking it upon oneself to get rid of rubbish in what one thinks is an isolated spot or for tossing an empty packet out the window or throwing it away as one walks along our streets. We live in the best country in the world. We have the best scenery, the best tourist destinations and the best locations to exercise even within a restricted 5 km.
On behalf of so many, I urge the Minister to launch a national campaign that includes effective enforcement and surveillance as well as proper guidelines for our local authorities that allow them to employ surveillance without the fear that they will never be able to use it. It is time to name those who deliberately set out to ruin our environment and to ensure the legislation is there in a timely manner to prosecute those who commit environmental vandalism. The clock is ticking.
I thank Senator Wall for raising this matter. It is very appropriate on Lá Fhéile Bríde when he says we have to look after our beautiful island within the wider world.
As noted in Ireland's Waste Action Plan for a Circular Economy published last September, the national trend in illegal dumping has been generally positive in recent years. Certainly, the level of large-scale illegal dumping has been significantly reduced in Ireland relative to that seen in the late 1990s and early 2000s. In my view, most of the improvements can be attributed to structural changes in the co-ordination of enforcement activities and to increased investment in supporting local authority enforcement.
Since 2015, local authorities have been assisted by three waste enforcement regional lead authorities, WERLAs, covering the southern, eastern and midlands, and Connacht-Ulster regions. The WERLA structure helps to facilitate a co-ordinated approach to waste enforcement. This is done by setting common priorities and objectives for waste enforcement and ensuring consistent enforcement of waste legislation while still leaving local authority personnel as first responders on the ground. Last year, my Department provided €1.1 million to support WERLA office work.
Also in 2020, €7.6 million was allocated by our Department to local authorities under the annual local authority waste enforcement measures grant scheme. This supports the recruitment and retention of more than 150 local authority waste enforcement personnel. Some €3 million was allocated to local authorities in support of the 2020 anti-dumping initiative. A sum of €1 million of this allocation was ring-fenced to combat illegal dumping activities arising from the Covid-19 crisis. Anti-dumping initiative funding supported in excess of 300 projects nationwide in 2020. Since the introduction of the anti-dumping initiative in 2017, total funding of €9.3 million has been provided in support of more than 1,000 projects. This has resulted in the removal of more than 10,000 tonnes of illegally dumped waste from our landscape.
My Department officials continue to liaise with enforcement staff in the WERLAs, local authorities and other agencies with a view to obtaining information on 2020 out-turns and indicative trends. This information will help to decide on priorities for 2021 funding and enforcement activities. We cannot be complacent in this area.
The Waste Action Plan for a Circular Economy contained a range of additional actions designed to enhance waste enforcement, protect human health and the environment, and to provide a strong deterrent effect. Inter alia, these include an enhanced role for the WERLAs, an anti-dumping toolkit for local authorities, an illegal and unauthorised sites action plan to assist authorities, greater use of fixed penalty notices, and the data-proofing of waste legislation to facilitate the use of available and emerging technologies in a manner which is GDPR-compliant.
The Senator mentioned the need for a nationwide campaign, so I note that my Department launched a national anti-dumping awareness communications campaign, Your Country, Your Waste, in November last year. This campaign was developed as part of the 2020 anti-dumping initiative and includes a tailored suite of information and awareness messaging for use by local authorities and community and voluntary groups. In providing 2021 funding, my Department will remind the sector to continue to utilise this messaging. Allocations for 2021 have not yet been finalised but my Department will continue to invest significantly in the local authority network to ensure there is a robust sustainable waste enforcement system in place to combat all illegal waste activity.
I thank the Minister for his comprehensive reply. Unfortunately, according to the evidence I have received, illegal dumping is on the increase. I am sure he too is hearing that from all local representatives. I have spoken to many of them in recent weeks. I would appreciate if the Minister's Department could liaise with local authorities. In Kildare, for example, we face 40 or 50 incidents per week.
I also wish to raise the issue of data protection. It seems to be a problem for local authorities, and it has been mentioned in a number of publications in recent weeks that local authorities are under pressure in respect of the use of data, CCTV cameras and so on. Cameras are a deterrent. I met representatives of my local authority during the week at one particularly bad spot and they raised the issue of using CCTV cameras to combat this practice. The Minister might comment on that.
I fully agree with the Senator that this is an issue. I have seen it in my constituency and I am involved in groups that carry out clean-ups of the River Dodder. One of the most frustrating aspects we see upriver is where significant illegal dumping is happening. The councils often install CCTV cameras but the frustration is that it has proven difficult for them to apply punitive measures, partly because of the difficulties they have with CCTV and how the courts and others view those data.
This is something we have to get right. There is a balance to be struck and we do not want to go down the route where our every action is monitored and traced using CCTV. There is a right to privacy and anonymity but that right cannot protect against blatantly illegal activity. I do not have the direct answer to how we should apply the GDPR. We have to apply it, but the Senator is correct that this is an issue. I will ask my officials to examine in further detail how we can get it right as part of the range of measures we need.