Minister for the Environment and Local Government (Performance of Certain Functions) Bill, 2002: Committee and Remaining Stages.


Amendments Nos. 2 and 3 are cognate on Amendment No. 1 and the three may, therefore, be taken together by agreement.

I move amendment No. 1:

In page 3, line 25, after "or" to insert "within 30 days".

In my opinion the Minister will accept the point – I also made it on Second Stage – I am about to make. As it stands, the provision in section 1 is an open-ended construction which could lead to the entire process being undermined. The proposed new subsection (3A) as contained in section 3 and to be inserted in the Waste Management Act, 1996, states that "Subsection (3) shall not affect the performance by the Minister of functions transferred (whether before or after the passing of the Minister for the Environment and Local Government (Performance of Certain Functions) Act, 2002)”, which means that there is no time limit being imposed. I am suggesting that a period of 30 days after the passing of the Act should serve as the cut-off point. I accept, however, that it is a time limit of only one month and I would be prepared to accept a limit of 60 days.

There should be a time limit by which all the particular functions the Minister intends to designate as being important to transfer should be transferred. He outlined those functions and the reasons for their transfer on Second Stage. I disagreed with a number of those reasons but that is neither here nor there because we live in a democracy. It would be prudent and wise, however, for us to impose a time restriction. I submit that a period of 30 days is reasonable but the Minister and his officials may be of the opinion that this would be overly constraining because it might not be possible to affect the entire transfer in that time. My intention is that we should define the period involved and bring an air of finality to this matter in order that it is not left open-ended.

I am concerned that the Minister could not if a function which was overlooked comes to light, merely state that it should have been dealt with and that he has the power to do so under the Act. There should be a definite cut-off point, in temporal terms, in relation to the application of this Bill, which is similar to emergency legislation, in order that there can be certainty about the functions with which he wants his Department to deal.

This is a reasonable amendment and I urge the Minister to avoid the necessity of holding a div ision in respect of it. The amendment was put forward and framed in a way which takes account of the legal position and, because of the way it has been constructed, the Minister might perhaps give it favourable consideration.

There is much merit in the argument put forward by Deputy Penrose. I ask for a little poetic license. One of the shortcomings of the previous planning and development Act was that it contained a penalty for cutting down trees or destruction of a building with a preservation order on it. I ask the Minister to consider introducing legislation which would prohibit development on sites where illegal actions took place beforehand. Currently if people enter a site in the middle of the night and cut down trees, although they are penalised, they can still go ahead with the development if they make an application to do so.

An issue which will probably cross the Minister's desk very soon is the work of Dúchas in developing a national park in County Wicklow. While the organisation does a great deal of good work in the county, it is in conflict with land owners. The Minister's predecessor, the former Minister for Arts, Heritage, Gaeltacht and the Islands Deputy de Valera, set up a committee in this area which has done much good work. I ask that it receives every possible support.

I understand precisely the reason Deputy Penrose tabled these amendments. They would require the Government order transferring heritage functions to my Department to be made either before or within 30 days of the passing of the Bill. They are identical amendments and I do not propose to accept them as they are unnecessary and restrictive. I am not certain the Deputy and I are on the same wavelength.

When the Taoiseach announced the new Government on 6 June, he placed strong and renewed focus on environmental sustainability. Consistent with this approach, he has mandated the Department of the Environment and Local Government with the additional responsibility of protecting our natural heritage and heritage policy generally. It is the intention that the order transferring heritage functions to my Department will be made as soon as possible after the enactment of this legislation, which is the very reason I wanted to bring it before the House.

That this legislation is being introduced at such short notice is a clear indication of the Government's commitment to establishing a new, reconstituted Department of the Environment and Local Government with a strong heritage focus as a matter of urgency. As this is quite clear, I do not accept the amendments. While, in the past I have taken on board the point the Deputy makes, and incorporated it in certain legislation, I do not feel it is necessary in the context of this Bill.

Deputy Timmins raised several points which were not directly related to Committee Stage, the first of which relates to his interest in a particular policy area. I would be happy to consider the matter if he raises it with me in writing.

Amendment put and declared lost.
Question proposed: "That section 1 stand part of the Bill."

I understand there is a facility to ask questions of the Minister on the Bill. As I did not have an opportunity to participate in the earlier debate, I have a small number of questions and ask that he takes them on board. At the outset, I record my disappointment that I had no opportunity to participate in the Second Stage debate.

If the Deputy had been in the House, he would have had the opportunity to speak.

That is not the case in fact because we sought time to speak and were informed it could not be accorded. I already referred to this in the House this morning.

In fairness, if the Deputy had been present, he would have been able to speak. I came into the House at 12.35 p.m. although I did not have to be here until 12.50 p.m. The reason I did so was that there were no other speakers.

I sought time to speak this morning and was refused. There was no provision in the Order Paper for the smaller parties or Independents to speak. That is the factual position. I wish to speak as of right, not as a gift from—

The Order Paper allowed 90 minutes.

I have stated the position. I now wish to ask certain questions if the Minister would be prepared to address them. Will he outline, in the context of the Bill, what the precise role will be for the Minister for the Environment and Local Government in relation to Dúchas? Does he not agree that the transfer of heritage and responsibility for Dúchas to the Minister for the Environment and Local Government, which made this Bill necessary, could lead to contradictions and conflicts of interest?

The Department of the Environment and Local Government has responsibility for waste management. The outgoing Minister sought to put in place a network of incinerators which have met with widespread opposition on the grounds of waste management, human health and environmental protection. It seems this Bill would allow the Minister to be consulted in individual planning cases where these involve significant issues for nature conservation, habitats and- or the built and archaeological heritage. If there are such significant issues in a planning application for a waste incinerator, what will be the position?

Does the Minister recognise that the Department of the Environment and Local Government, because of the actions of the previous Minister, has lost the trust of communities and many local authority members? This is principally because of the Waste Management Act, 2001, which removed powers in relation to waste management from elected councillors and gave them to managers to ensure the network of incinerators, was pushed through.

Before the Minister replies, I would like to clarify a matter raised earlier concerning the Deputy's right to speak. A time slot was provided for in the Order Paper today. There was 11 minutes remaining of the time slot when the Minister was called. Any Deputy present in the House who offered to speak was entitled to do so in those 11 minutes. I wish to make that clear.

I welcome the Chair's clarification, but I ask that he also take on board that prior to the Order of Business this morning the request for time was made properly and was denied. On that basis I had no way of second guessing your good offices regarding the opportunity to speak.

It is not a matter of my good offices. The reality of the position in the House is that the Chair determines who will speak and is bound by Standing Orders. As it happened, there were 11 minutes to spare earlier. I wish to make this clear because the Chair does not want to be implicated in whatever difficulties arose this morning.

Nevertheless, you must acknowledge that that is a gamble between being told in the first instance that one will or will not have the opportunity to speak. One can never second guess.

The Chair controls the House and the order of speakers.

I do not wish to be here as a gambler in terms of the opportunity to speak. I wish to establish my right to be able to speak.

There was 11 minutes to spare and any Deputy who wished to speak was entitled to do so.

The issues raised by the Deputy were discussed at length on Second Stage when I responded to all the points he made in great detail. We are now on Committee Stage. Nevertheless, I assure him I am absolutely satisfied I will be more than capable, along with my officials with responsibility for various areas, of exercising my authority in a fair and even-handed manner. The decision to confer these new powers on my Department, specifically with regard to giving it responsibility for Dúchas, is a very positive move. I welcome the broad thrust of our approach to the environment going forward.

It could be presumed from the manner in which the Deputy made his points that I will act in some way as judge and jury on all these issues. I will not and neither do I propose to. There are a whole range of bodies in place which can deal with many of the issues the Deputy raised. We had a lengthy discussion on all of these matters on Second Stage.

On the Deputy's last point regarding my predecessor, he acted correctly following a complete failure of councillors in many areas to exercise the responsibility entrusted to them for taking decisions on waste management. They simply walked away from their responsibility. The reality is we have a serious crisis in this area. However, this is not a debate for today. I emphasise that this action was not taken in an arbitrary fashion or for the sake of it. It was done for good practice to ensure decisions could be made throughout the country on these matters.

With respect, I was very much involved as a local elected councillor in all of the discussion locally and also here in the House. The councillors who refused to embrace the Minister's wishes were not acting in an irresponsible way or refusing to take their responsibility seriously. They had a different perspective and a different sense of what was correct and appropriate. This was within a short time of having enshrined local government and local democracy in the Constitution.

I ask the Deputy for brevity, because we are outside the subject matter of this debate.

Because the councillors would not provide the Minister with the answers he required, he removed the power from them. Arbitrary it certainly was.

I hope I get the same latitude. I raised the issue of the Spencer Dock development previously and although I did not expect the Minister to be able to respond in any great detail, I expect a response to the issues I raised. I do not accept that a Minister adding an extra storey to a development was done without lobbying from a third party. I do not think the Minister and his officials took on the responsibility to add a storey to a development as submitted by the DDDA. Did any other party make approaches to the Department? There are stories going around that I will not repeat here even though Deputy Cuffe implied something else. However, in the interests of the reputation of his Department, the Minister should make a detailed statement as quickly as possible. To add a storey to a development on the waterfront in the middle of Dublin city on a site that was the subject of much controversy and opposition by residents, without prompting from outside agencies or groups, is quite unbelievable.

As the Deputy said, I do not have all the details of the matter before me. However – this view is shared by the vast majority of Members of this House – my colleague, the Minister for Education and Science, Deputy Noel Dempsey, the former Minister in this Department, is a man of the highest integrity. I have no doubt that any decision was reached by him and the officials in the Department of the Environment and Local Government. There is no question that they would have made decisions based on specific suggestions made in this House. I do not have all the details, but I am quite comfortable with and will be looking at it. If clarification is needed, I will certainly provide it.

Question put and agreed to.

I move amendment No. 2:

In page 3, line 39, after "or" to insert "within 30 days".

Amendment put and declared lost.
Section 2 agreed to.

I move amendment No. 3:

In page 4, line 15, after "or" to insert "within 30 days".

Amendment put and declared lost.
Section 3 agreed to.
Section 4 agreed to.
Title agreed to.
Bill reported without amendment and received for final consideration.
Question proposed: "That the Bill do now pass."

I thank all the Deputies for their contributions to the debate and facilitating me and the Government in passing this legislation. Notwithstanding the various important points made, everybody understood it was appropriate to have it passed.

Question put and agreed to.