As an adjunct to my comments on the detail of this Bill, firstly let me offer a word of welcome for it and a word of praise for the Minister, Deputy Smith, on its introduction. It is seldom I get the opportunity to praise him, particularly in Dublin. The Bill has as its objective the establishment of a State company for forestry which takes its development and commercial exploitation out of the hands of the Civil Service, a welcome pronouncement in the forestry debate. The Government have by the publication of this Bill recognised and followed through the major preparatory tasks in this regard, which were undertaken by my party in 1984, with the establishment of the Forestry Review Body, following the very genuine initiative taken by the forester staff in opening the debate.
My most major criticism of the Bill is its failure to identify in its objectives a requirement for acquisition and planting of land. This is indeed very peculiar and totally regrettable. I join with my colleagues in condemning this grevious omission. Surely a new company to deal with forestry should have plantation establishment listed as one of its main objectives. Not alone that, but the Government should ensure the adherence to a national planting target of not less than 10,000 hectares per annum as a priority for this country, which at present, with only 6 per cent of its land under trees, languishes far behind its European neighbours. I hope the recent upsurge in private planting will continue; but hopeful aspirations are, on their own, of no value when one is faced with planning Ireland's future in a forestry development programme. The omission of even the mention of a national planting target is a serious indictment of the Government's lack of a planning strategy.
How are we expected to increase from our current level of plantations at 340,000 hectares to a more realistic figure of 1.2 million hectares suggested by many in the past, including Government agencies such as An Foras Talúntais, as an immediate target in line with a realistic land use policy? In order to sustain our wood based industries and to provide guaranteed employment in all aspects of forestry, including downstream employment, to expand these industries in a planned manner and to reverse our balance of payments deficit, we must guarantee a sustained yield from our forests. This can only happen with the establishment and maintenance of a national planting target.
Running parallel with the publishing of this Bill is a very disturbing rumour that at present a committee under the aegis of the Department of Finance are working on the analysis of a proposal which would suggest that the State and consequently the new company, would abandon their planting programme entirely and hope that the private sector would take up the slack. The suggestion is that the Government are awaiting a final report from this group. Could it be that Fianna Fáil would be about to give the kiss of death to Coillte Teoranta even before it is established? The chief executive, the directors and staff of Coillte Teoranta, the forest industries sector and Dáil Éireann are entitled to know what is going on and I ask the Minister to clarify this in his response.
The Bill deals with the question of directors of the board and a chairman. It is unusual in this day and age that the Minister was not specific in his wording with regard to the appointment of worker directors. Surely he is well aware of this concept as a very valuable contributor to the question of harmonious relationships between management and staff, and is aware that it is now well established practice in other companies to have this sort of worker participation at the highest level of company management.
I hope also that the appointment of the chairman and directors will be in accordance with what is considered best for the company in terms of experience, expertise, forestry know-how and good commercial thinking and not, as too often happens, to the serious detriment of success because of political considerations. It is at a time like this that the national interest must take precedence over shortterm political gain.
One of my chief misgivings on the question of appointments to the new company is that much of what is contained in the Bill by way of reference back to the Minister and much of what is omitted from the proposed legislation militates seriously against attracting the type of person with the required entrepreneurial skills for the position. Not alone that, but because of the restrictive clause which limits the first term of appointment of a chief executive to three years, the legislation almost argues against the feasibility of such a post to a person who is already gainfully employed in a similar capacity.
Finally on this point, because of the non-implementation by the Government of the higher civil service pay award, it stands to reason that as the general trend is towards a move away from posts in this area to the private sector that the Government are swimming against the tide with regard to this key post. Seldom have I seen a position with such challenge and potential fraught with so many pitfalls, interference and lack of reward.
It is not clear from the legislation what functions will be ascribed to Coillte Teoranta. For instance, the Forestry Department have been very successful in their creation of natural amenities and public facilities. One need only mention Lough Key Forest Park in Boyle, County Roscommon, the Killykeen development in County Cavan or the John F. Kennedy arboretum in County Wexford as examples. How will Coillte Teoranta be expected to handle these developments? Will they be expected to run them on strictly commercial lines, or will there be some degree of public utility provided without charge? Will the company be expected, or maybe I should ask permitted, to involve themselves in further developments along those lines? Having regard to the many fine waterways, lakes and rivers which will be under the company's control, will they be expected or permitted to develop their obvious fishing potential, that is, of course, hoping we will have any fishermen left in the country after the rod licence debacle? What about shooting rights and hunting rights? All those are matters of staff interest and public interest and require clarification.
Obviously the functions ascribed to the new company as well as their specific authority with regard to grant administration, training, research and development, felling licences and so on, will determine the staff that will be transferred from the present Department of Energy to the company, and I note that the Minister is rather coy in stating that the staff to be transferred to the company will be those who are designated by him for transfer. The sooner the Minister clarifies these very important matters the better are the chances of establishing a successful company.
Following on this question of functions and authority of Coillte Teoranta, there are two very crucial questions that need to be addressed. First, in the terms of Irish forestry, will Coillte Teoranta be the forest authority of this country from the perspective of their position in the international scheme of things? Secondly, what will be the company's relationship with the EC in terms of their entitlement to grants? I trust that it will be the forest authority for the country and on the question of EC grants, I presume that the company should not have to operate at a disadvantage to the private sector.
While reading through the Bill and referring back to other earlier pronouncements by the Fianna Fáil Party in their last election manifesto and later having regard to the various comments they have made since coming into Government, particularly those listed in the Programme for National Recovery into which they entered as a peace plan with the other social partners, it is quite interesting now to make comparisons. For instance, in the Programme for National Recovery the Government said, and I quote “The new company should be launched early in the New Year (an interim board will be announced shortly).” What has happened since October 1987? We are now well into the new year, and while this legislation is before us the actual launching of the company which can only take place on vesting day is still unknown. More peculiar than that is the failure of the Government to announce the promised interim board. Can the Minister explain why this decision was reneged on?
The Programme for National Recovery also talked about employment creation in forestry. What has happened since? About 40 of their permanent Civil Service staff have opted for early retirement, and while I talk to you, I understand about 450 letters are about to issue to members of the industrial work force containing completed redundancy agreements. Therefore the Government would have to be in a position to identify at least 500 jobs to even prove that they had sustained employment at the October 1987 level.
I know the Minister can talk about increased planting in 1987 and 1988 and refer to an increase of 50,000 cubic metres of timber from our State forests, an increase, let me quickly point out that came about solely by way of annual increment increase in our crops and not because of any magic wand performance from the Government. Where are the newly created jobs? Can we have specific examples of the numbers and where they have been created? Any jobs created in additional planting are temporary and cannot be referred to as sustainable employment.
Also entered in the Programme for National Recovery page 22, clause 22, is the following:
Arrangements will be put into place to ensure that new jobs arising from the State's planting programme will not arise in the black economy.
And what might I ask has been done to put such arrangements in place? To my knowledge, absolutely nothing and despite this the matter does not even get a hint of acknowledgement in the legislation.
The question of the black economy operating in Irish forestry is obviously a matter of national concern. This is acknowledged by the inclusion I referred to in the Programme for National Recovery. To have merited such status, the matter must be out of hand, otherwise it could be dealt with in the normal course of events. My information is that it most certainly is out of hand. In fact, since the Programme for National Recovery was published, the matter appears to have worsened.
It gives me no joy whatsoever to place on the record of this House my certain contention that the black economy thrives in Ireland's forestry programme. Not alone that, but our own Forestry Service is an unwitting employer of black economy labour because their contracts for much of their work do not facilitate a proper check on the tax regime of those employed. How much worse that matter is in the private sector forestry one can gauge for oneself. It is true that contracts will state that the work must be carried out subject to the legitimate tax code of the State, but have the Government become so naive as to think that because they say something or write it down, that this provided instant solutions?
The losses accruing to the State from this reprehensible practice are a serious drain on our over-burdened economy. While it is difficult to gauge their true extent, we have the Forestry officials admitting it can happen under their very noses, while one private forestry contractor who operates in the legitimate economy, concedes that he cannot compete for jobs on a competitive basis with other outfits of the same size and scale who are able to take on contract jobs at 60 per cent of his price and still make a profit.
There is only one obvious way in which this can be done. The losses are enormous. Some of those people draw the dole while still working. They evade tax and social insurance payments and in the final analysis they keep legitimate operators out of jobs. At a time when work opportunities are scarce there is an evergrowing temptation to increase your competitiveness by any means possible and I fear that our growing forestry industry could become the growth area of Ireland's black economy. Why have the Government not moved to stop it? Why have they not made tax-paid receipts a mandatory stipulation for grant payments to the private sector? Why, having included a reference to this in the Programme for National Recovery have they not followed through with this in the Forestry Bill?
The general tone of this Bill has an amazing tendency to state that many of its major decisions can only be made following approval from the Minister and in many instances also the decisions require the prior approval of the Minister for Finance. The examples are so numerous, if one studies the proposed legislation, that it is obvious that the inclusion of any glaring examples would only serve to give the wrong idea because of the omission of other glaring examples.
I am not arguing against Government interest in matters of national concern, but I am most definitely arguing against Government interference. Surely the Government must be able to make up their mind about whether or not they wish to take forestry out of the hands of the Civil Service. Having agreed to do this, why then does the Minister have to introduce such debilitating restrictions in the operating of the company.
No one has spoken more often or more convincingly of the need to establish forestry as a commercial orientated, market-driven industry than our present Minister; and, while I must say I admired his conviction in this regard, I feel that the Bill does not reflect his enthusiasm in this respect. Could it be that he fell victim at the final hurdle to the bureaucratic overlords of the Civil Service who have more of a vested interest in the preservation of their own control over what happens than they have in commercial viability. Why could the Minister not act according to his own wishes and commitments and cut the strings and trappings to float a company with the freedom to take decisions as they saw appropriate?
This is not to say that there would not be accountability. Of course, there should be. Indeed, I would argue that section 31 of the proposed legislation should have been more specific in its requirement for an annual report. I feel that if such a report is to be relevant it should be specified that it be presented not later than three months after end of year. Also, the need for accountability could not be ignored, having regard to the requirement for central Exchequer funding which is so necessary. It is difficult to equate the funding provisions of the Bill with the most up-to-date Forestry Department figures; and I sincerely hope that what is a good decision in principle, that is, the establishment of Coillte Teoranta is not used as a money saving device for the Exchequer dressed in a deceptive respectable garb.
I am convinced that investment in forestry is not alone worthwhile, but essential for our economy, especially at a time when alternative farm enterprises are so important and when the EC looks so benignly on forestry development? The figures speak for themselves. Ireland imports over £300 million worth of timber and timber products annually. The EC is a net importer of timber to a degree that it is second only in scale to its energy bill. Surely nobody could quibble with continuing funding to build up our hectarage of forestry plantations to an acceptable national level.
My opening comments on this debate were ones of welcome. I have referred to what I perceive to be serious shortcomings. They can be rectified. My party are committed to positive, constructive opposition. We have already stated our intention to put down amendments to this Bill on Committee Stage. I hope that the Government will be magnanimous enough to acknowledge our genuine interest in the development of the forestry industry by showing their appreciation for our proposals. Let me conclude on a parochial note. The Minister, my esteemed Oireachtas colleague from North Tipperary, will be aware of the lack of investment leading to industrial stagnation and a severe lack of job opportunities in Thurles town and environs. I would formally request that, in line with Government policy on decentralisation, the administration headquarters of Coillte Teoranta be established in Thurles. There are a number of ideal locations within the town suitable for immediate start-up. Thurles is geographically well situated, with an excellent primary road and rail network. Regarding staffing, it has an abundance of accommodation and provides outstanding recreational and amenity facilities. As Minister with responsibility for the location of these offices, I earnestly, appeal to him and his Government to give some little recognition to Thurles, which to date has suffered seriously from the Government's adverse decisions and total neglect.