I call on the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine to move the Second Reading.
Forestry (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2020 [Seanad]: Second Stage
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
There is 20 minutes for the Government. I do not know whether the Minister or the Minister of State will introduce the Bill.
I will. I am pleased to have this opportunity to present the Forestry (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2020 for the consideration of this House. All Stages were completed in the Seanad on Friday evening after a comprehensive seven-hour discussion, and I am sure we will have something similar in this House. I thank the Business Committee of the Dáil for agreeing to waive the requirement for pre-legislative scrutiny of the general scheme of the proposed Bill due to the urgency of the need to introduce this legislation. The Bill has been in circulation in draft form since the end of July. A month-long public consultation helped greatly to inform the draft put before the Seanad last week.
As all Deputies will be aware, the forestry sector is 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 we have an efficient and functioning licensing system. As the Minister of State with responsibility for land use, biodiversity and forestry, I am enormously keen to shape the future of Irish forestry to ensure delivery for the environmental, social and economic well-being of our country. The programme for Government is ambitious for forestry, with over 15 proactive, close-to-nature forestry commitments. I am determined to work with all stakeholders to achieve that ambition. My commitment, and that of the Government, to that ambition is unequivocal. However, first we must overcome the current difficulties and get the licensing system functioning for all. The reasons for the delays in issuing licences are well documented at this stage and have required the most fundamental changes to our licensing system in its history.
As I am sure Deputies will be aware, there is a crisis in the forestry sector. The licensing and appeals system has come under significant pressure in the last two years. Not only are there delays in issuing licences due to the licensing process itself, which my Department is addressing and to which I will speak later, but 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, FAC, is currently overwhelmed. The delays being experienced are unfair to both applicants and appellants. 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 efficient and effective process and will meet and balance the needs of all.
I will give Deputies some background information on the licensing system that is in place for afforestation, tree felling, forest roads and aerial fertilisation. My Department is the sole licensing authority for such licences and it 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. An Taisce, the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, and other bodies are statutory consultees on licence applications. The current licence procedures allow submissions by third parties at application stage and provide 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 FAC within 28 days of the decision. There has been an upward trend in the numbers of licences being appealed, with 14 licences appealed in 2017, 105 in 2018, 235 in 2019 and 402 to date in 2020. While the FAC has increased the number of decisions issued year on year, with 31 in 2018, 55 in 2019 and 172 so far this year, it is simply not keeping pace with the appeals received. Approximately 490 cases are awaiting the decision of the FAC at present.
I have been engaging intensively with all relevant stakeholders on these issues. I have met with the environmental pillar, with Forest Industries Ireland and with other groups. I have had correspondence from many frustrated farmers who are confused about why they cannot get a licence to plant a native woodland or take out dead and dying trees from their forests. The delays in issuing licences have led to serious difficulties for people working in the forestry industry. If action is not taken quickly, we could face the prospect of sawmills running out of timber and of significant job losses. While delays in hearing appeals affect the quantity of timber being felled and transported to sawmills, they are also influencing planting rates. To date, my Department has supported the establishment of just 1,941 ha of new afforestation this year, which is down 35% on this time last year. This is well off any afforestation targets we have set, and it needs to be rectified.
Before I move on to the specific provisions of the Bill and the public consultation process undertaken, I want to say that the Bill is not being delivered in isolation. We are also addressing the other issues and delays with forestry licensing. It must be acknowledged that decisions on granting licences have been too 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. We have completely overhauled our assessment process, which is now robust and responsive to the environment in which we operate. This has meant that the Department has had to revise procedures, increase resources, develop training and guidance, and strengthen its ecology team. While this has taken time, we now have a sustainable system and 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 being the highest in the previous 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 an even bigger bottleneck will develop at appeals stage. That is why this Bill is so important. In order to ensure full public participation with these proposals, the draft Bill was published and open 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 is of intense public interest. The vast majority of the submissions, approximately 81%, indicated support for the Bill. The submissions received have been examined and categorised in terms of who made the submission, that is, industry, private, public representatives or other, and whether the submission was in favour or opposed to the draft Bill. The submissions were also grouped and analysed based on the Bill head and section being addressed. A copy of a report summarising the main outcomes of the public consultation, which was made available last week, provides an overview of the submissions made. Careful consideration was given to the suggestions made, and as a result the draft Bill was updated to take account of the feedback received and presented to the Seanad last week. All submissions will be published in due course on my Department's website in a suitable format that meets GDPR requirements.
My Department is working hard to complete this as quickly as possible, hopefully very soon.
The main provisions set out in 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 committee to determine appeals without an oral hearing where it is possible to properly dispose of an appeal in that manner; providing the Minister with the 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 introducing reasonable fees for appeals.
Updates that have been made to the Bill to take into account suggestions made during the public consultation process are as follows. It makes no change to the right of applicants and all third parties to appeal directly to the forestry appeals committee. The removal of this "relevant person" provision will allow direct access to all. It sets the quorum requirement for the forestry appeals committee at two, to consist of a chairperson or deputy chairperson, or a deputy chairperson is designated, and at least one ordinary member in order to increase the efficiency of the committee. It provides that licensing decisions may be affirmed, varied, set aside and returned to the Department. This brings clarity to the role of the forestry appeals committee. It requires that all information and documentation must accompany an appeal in order to be valid. This is to ensure the efficient functioning of the committee. It provides 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 an ensure economically and environmentally yield of forest goods and service in the State.
These provisions were the subject of an informed and robust debate in the Seanad last week, where Senators put forward a large number of amendments to the Bill. These were organised into 14 groups, and I accepted two amendments in that House to which I would like to draw Members' attention. Text was added under section 2 at page 3, after line 26, which states that: "A copy of the report will at the same time be made available to the public on the Government of Ireland website and the Government publications office." I was more than happy to accept this change, which offers the widest possible visibility for the annual report of the chairperson of the forestry appeals committee. Under section 3 at page 8, the text at 14D (2) was replaced with: "When making a directive under this section, the Minister shall have regard to the need to support economically and environmentally sustainable forest goods and services in the State." This text better reflects what the Minister must have regard to when issuing a directive to the forestry appeals committee to prioritise certain classes of appeal.
I firmly believe that all these amendments are necessary to remove the current delays being experienced in the system and to reduce decision times in the forestry licensing system overall.
I will now go through the Bill in detail. Section 1 deals with definitions of the Forestry Act 2014 and the Agriculture Appeals Act 2001. Section 2 amends section 14 of the Act of 2001. It provides for the chairperson of the forestry appeals committee to make an annual report to the Minister of his or her activities and of the activities of the committee, and for copies of that report to be laid before each House of the Oireachtas, to be published on Gov.ie and be made available in the Government Publications Office.
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 committee to have a quorum of two, for a time limit of 28 days to lodge 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 law.
Section 4 deals with further amendments to the Act of 2001. It includes 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 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 the power 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, so that the making of regulations to prescribe fees follow 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 in relation to composition of the committee come into effect immediately on enactment of the Bill, as do directives from the Ministers. Fees may be imposed on licences made on or after the Bill comes into operation.
While we must recognise the current difficulties, we must also look towards the future of forestry, and how the planting of the right tree in the right place can best serve the environmental, social, and economic needs of our society. We have, however, a long way to go on delivering on these needs. Forestry has a vital role to play in climate action and in dealing with biodiversity decline. Getting this model right will be my primary focus. Any new national forestry programme must deliver on these objectives, and I am committed to the development of an ambitious new programme, one which unites communities, protects habitats, delivers a measurable response to climate change, while supporting important rural jobs, and a vibrant timber sector. This will not be an easy task, but I ask each and every Member to work with me on this.
I assure Deputies that this Bill 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 this Bill will not change the situation overnight, it will, along with our project plans for managing the licensing backlog, greatly improve the overall system, and will result in an increase in the number of licences available for planting and felling, and as a consequence will project jobs within the forestry sector. In that spirit, I look forward to our debate of its provisions, and the reforms which it can put in place, and I commend the Bill to the House.
I am pleased to be here today to support my colleague, the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, as she introduces this forestry Bill to the House. I echo her words of gratitude to the Opposition for working with us in recognition of the urgency of the legislation for the forestry sector and to work with us in ensuring the Bill could be accommodated in the Seanad last week and in the Dáil this week. We do not take that co-operation lightly and are very appreciative of it.
Before turning to the Bill itself, I would like to say something about the forestry sector and our plans for its expansion. I do not have to tell the House that we have ambitious plans, that can be seen in the programme for Government. We want to expand afforestation beyond the current level of 11%, to deliver on the target of 8,000 ha per year. In doing so, we want to plant diverse and resilient forests. These will include all types of forestry - productive, mixed, native woodlands and recreational forests. We want to promote sustainable forest management. We want to grow healthy forests which will sustain our timber industry, an industry which supports many jobs in our rural communities. Equally we want healthy and expanding forests to contribute to our climate change, biodiversity, and societal goals.
Forestry is an integral part of our response to the climate change challenge as recognised in the 2019 climate action plan, which is currently under revision. It also has a role to play in contributing to halting the loss of biodiversity, as outlined in the national biodiversity plan. It is all about having a forestry system which contributes to our aims as a society. After all, forests and woodlands are multifunctional. Productive forests produce an economic good, which those who have invested land in forestry over many years depend upon. These forests provide jobs for those who plant, who harvest and who work in sawmills. Then there are the pallets, building materials and other wood-based products produced at the end of the process, which we all use and need.
Forests also occupy wonderful community and recreational spaces in many parts of the country. My Department’s NeighbourWood scheme has brought communities together to revitalise and plant woodlands, solely for recreational use. These are collaborative efforts which promote a healthy enjoyment of the outdoors, for all age groups. This is something which has taken on even more importance during these times. I am sure everyone agrees that a stroll through our nearby woodland is good for both the heart and the soul.
Our native woodlands are also a source of pride and I am more than pleased that the area being planted with our native species is on the rise. These are biodiversity hotspots and as part of the Host a Hive initiative align with the national pollinator plan.
Farm forestry is something that I am keen to see more of, as trees in a farmland setting can deliver many benefits. Shelterbelts can provide shelter for animals and from wind. When sensitively planted near rivers, they can prevent erosion and flooding. They can contribute to water quality and to our Water Framework Directive obligations. Trees planted in the right place can also provide connectivity corridors for wildlife.
I am acutely aware that we must promote forests that respond to the evolving needs of our society. This will be the aim of the new forestry programme and strategy. The strategy will be a shared endeavour requiring action from public bodies, landowners, foresters, communities and businesses.
Before we get to that point, however, we need a properly functioning licensing and appeals system. Every tree planted, every tree felled and every forest road built must have a licence. As all in the House know, these licences are not available because of delays in the licensing and appeals system. This situation is unsustainable and no encouragement to anyone who wishes to plant. In fact, because of these delays, the very future of the sector is at risk, with jobs in sawmills up and down the country under pressure as a result. That is why the Bill is so important and urgently needed.
My Department is beginning to address the delays in issuing licences, but good progress being made is being hampered by long delays in dealing with appeals. This serves neither the landowner nor the appellant. Each has a right to a timely decision from the forestry appeals committee.
I fully support the changes proposed in the Bill. They are suitable to the task at hand, that of improving the functioning of the appeals system. A committee that can sit in divisions, ensure that relevant information is provided when an appeal is lodged and charge a reasonable fee are all sound provisions.
The independence of the committee in dealing with individual cases is fully protected in this Bill, as is the right of any party to appeal directly to the committee. While I welcome the option I have of prioritising certain classes of appeal, it is not something that I would take lightly. To be clear, I may direct the committee to hear certain classes of appeal, but I may not interfere in an individual appeal in any way.
The importance of this issue has been more than demonstrated by the level of response to the public consultation. People wish to see the system fixed quickly. We can move closer to that aim by bringing the Bill to a conclusion.
I look forward to the Bill being considered in more detail in the House today and tomorrow, as was the case in the Seanad. I commend the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, on her sterling work in introducing the Bill and, importantly, working with departmental officials on making a strong effort to get the Bill processed in a prompt fashion, with the co-operation of the Houses.
I bring apologies from Deputy Carthy, who is unable to attend. I commend the Minister and Minister of State. This is the first time that I have spoken in their presence and I congratulate them on their appointments.
Sinn Féin recognises the importance of this legislation and welcomes that the Government is seeking to address the existential crisis facing the forestry industry. The challenge the sector is facing is one that can now be measured in weeks. We in Sinn Féin have played our part in helping to bring this legislation to the floor in a timely manner.
The Government must recognise and accept how this crisis came to be. Last December, the then Minister, Deputy Creed, spoke of being involved in a "major triage operation" regarding the building backlog in the forestry sector. He spoke of recruiting additional staff and external environmental consultants, all of which we now know amounted to nothing. By May, the then Minister was describing the backlog as temporary and unavoidable. The reason for the crisis in our forestry industry is not one of too much democratic political participation, but of a lack of political will and interest in dealing with the issue. Interest in rural Ireland is something that this Government has shown little of. We have now reached this crisis point.
That the Bill allows the forestry appeals committee to meet in divisions is to be welcomed and is the primary mechanism through which the backlog can be addressed. Upon the passing of the Bill, the Government will be promptly tested. It is incumbent upon the Government to ensure that the additional staff and resources that the forestry appeals committee needs are put in place urgently. We can discuss the amount of appeals coming in and the reasons for same, but the real test will be the Government clearing the backlog, getting the timber industry, including sawmills, back to work as quickly as possible and ensuring that jobs are not lost.
We in Sinn Féin have several concerns regarding the Bill. It places too much discretion in the hands of the Minister and may limit ordinary citizens' access to the appeals process. We have engaged constructively with the legislation and are seeking to address these concerns, which are shared by many, through the amendments that we have tabled. This is not our preferred manner to legislate, however. In particular, that amendments were required to be submitted for consideration today prior to the Seanad voting is a procedure that the Government must not believe will be welcomed as common practice.
Our amendments will not seek to impinge upon any aspect of the legislation that seeks to address the existing backlog or even the way that appeals will be handled. We seek only to add safeguards to ensure that any citizen may engage in the process freely, as is citizens' right. We would extend the period wherein an appeal could be lodged to a reasonable six weeks. We wish for the time a person has to appeal to be counted from when public notice of a licence is granted rather than when the decision is made. We want to ensure that people appointed to the forestry appeals committee are suitably qualified. We seek to ensure that ordinary people can engage in the appeals process without prejudice. These amendments are reasonably worded and we appeal to the Government to recognise not only the rights of citizens to engage in the process, but also its own obligation to safeguard and ensure those rights.
While the Minister and Minister of State may correctly point out the potential benefits of the new online portal that the Government is bound to make available, they will be aware of significant concerns that the portal will not be available for some time. If use of this portal can deliver documents and materials critical to appeals in a timely manner, it would play an important role in making the appeals process more efficient. What is not tenable is limiting people's ability to appeal today on the promise that a separate future appeal might be more streamlined. I expect that the Minister and Ministers of State will give some undertaking that this portal will be available before any constraint is placed on appellants.
Much of the discretion provided to the Minister within the Bill is unnecessary and a cause of concern. I call on the Government to accept our amendments to rectify this. The Minister is empowered to reduce the period wherein an appeal may be lodged but is prohibited from extending it. To us, this is bizarre. In addition, the discussion around fees in the Bill has often missed the point. The Bill repeals the Minister's existing ability to introduce fees and then reintroduces it in a separate section, but with one key difference; the Minister will no longer have to justify these fees to the Dáil. I urge the Government to accept our modest amendments to place a cap on fees and mandate the Minister to provide a refund in cases where an appeal is upheld.
The Bill is imperfect, but by engaging with the Opposition constructively we can pass legislation that will allow for the existing backlog to be cleared in a timely manner without impinging on the rights of citizens.
With the new forestry programme due in 2021, the Government will have an opportunity to shape Irish forestry policy for several years. A proper forestry policy should deliver for everyone. It should be of benefit to the community, the local economy and the environment. A forest should be an amenity, somewhere people want to live near. This means greater diversity requirements in afforestation, more native species and less Sitka spruce. While the conifer may be the most commercially viable in the short term, the resulting monoculture provides none of the ancillary benefits while damaging soil in the long run.
It is known that much of the cause of the backlog is opposition to forestry policy in general rather than individual operations. Upon the passing of the Bill, while the Government's first duty is to clear the existing backlog promptly, its second duty and opportunity are to develop a new forestry policy that provides broader benefits not only for today, but tomorrow. The Government should bring a new forestry programme to both Houses of the Oireachtas in a prompt manner, accompanied by further legislation to address the outstanding concerns and do so as a matter of priority.
We will be supporting the substantive motion before the House in order to save rural jobs and ensure that the forestry industry can continue to operate, but the Government must live up to its part and ensure that rural Ireland can be made vibrant once again.
As the Minister and Minister of State will be aware, I represent County Leitrim, where up to 50% of the land available for forestry is under Sitka spruce primarily. This frustrates and annoys the communities living in the areas in question. Many years ago, I spoke to a man in Ballinamore.
It was the evening and the lights were coming on as darkness fell. He pointed to the mountain behind the town and said he remembered when there were hundreds of lights on the mountain and that the only thing there now was trees. That is what is happening, not just in mountainous and hilly areas but in every part of County Leitrim. It is really frustrating for farmers who want to buy a piece of land beside their farm but cannot do so because they are outbid by big corporations which purchase it for investment purposes and then plant it. It is an issue that is extremely sore and annoying for people living in rural areas.
My own parish has seen huge amounts of forestry development. The local school has had its number of teachers reduced from three to two this year because there are so few families living there. When I look at the horizon beyond my house, more than three quarters of it is made up of conifers. Where the land is planted, there is no longer any need for the farmer. There are no cattle on the land and no need for the vet to come out. There is no tractor to be fixed and no roof to be put on a shed because there is no need for a shed. There is no need for anything really. As far as the community is concerned, that piece of land has become sterile. There will be a lot of activity on it for three weeks every ten or 12 years when the trees are cut and drawn away but then there is nothing again for years.
There is a really deep problem which the Government must address. If we are going to have parts of the country under large amounts of afforestation, something must be done to replace the communities that are being displaced by that afforestation. We see in those same parts of the country that people cannot get planning permission to build a house. When that point is raised, the answer is often given that they should go and live in a town. My parish does not have a town, nor do the parishes that surround it. We live in a rural area with dispersed communities and there is no town. Those communities have survived for centuries and can survive again if the Government would take the interest to ensure they are provided with the resources to be able to continue.
Afforestation is a huge problem for many parts of rural Ireland but it should be a huge opportunity. The difference is in whether the Government puts the right policies in place. The policies in place at the moment are only about big corporate interests and being able to produce the maximum amount of timber off the worst kind of land as fast as possible to make the maximum amount of profit. Everyone else can just stand by and watch as their community dwindles in front of them. That is what I have seen happen and we must do something about it. We will support this legislation to ensure the blockade is stopped and people who have forests grown can cut the timber. The timber has to be got out and those jobs must be sustainable. We recognise that and it is fine. However, the other side of the issue is not being addressed with any urgency at all. On my first day in the House I pointed out that we have a huge problem in that we are not delivering for rural Ireland. That is not happening at all.
If we are going to move forward on these issues, to look at all the factors in the round and ensure we deliver for people in rural areas, we have to recognise the problems that exist. We must recognise, first of all, that the level of grant aid that has been given for afforestation to people who are not farmers must be different from the level of grant aid given to people who are farmers. It was the case in the past that farmers got a higher level of grant aid. If they had a small piece of land of poor quality which they wanted to plant, there was an opportunity to do so. Now the same level of grant aid is offered to the investor who comes from wherever. That has created a completely unfair scenario. These people come with very deep pockets and can offer bids for land that put it out of the reach of any local person. That is a huge problem. At the same time, there are many wealthy Irish people who come together and invest in these companies to provide a pension fund. They buy farms and land in places like Leitrim and plant them. They do not know, understand or care what that does to the local community. That is fine and understandable. The Government should know, understand and care about the impact on communities, but that does not seem to be the case. The Minister and Minister of State have an opportunity to do something about that responsibility.
Another problem that has been arising for years in many parts of rural Ireland, particularly in counties like Leitrim where there is poor infrastructure, is that roads are being decimated by forest operations. Part of the problem is that forestry is treated as an agricultural crop. Every other agricultural crop grows in a year or two years, but this particular crop takes 40 years to grow and is harvested in a couple of weeks. During those couple of weeks, thousands of tonnes of materials are coming out across small county roads which simply cannot sustain the load and are being crushed beneath it. Local authorities are putting weight restrictions on those loads and trying every way they can to put pressure on the forestry companies to come up with answers to the problem. What is really needed is for the Government put a fund in place to enable local authorities to replace the roads. A simple solution that has been proposed is that a small portion of the grant aid to afforestation should be set aside for such a fund. The hauliers will undoubtedly argue that they pay road tax and they have a point in that regard. They are entitled to have good roads in place. At the end of the day, the problem we have is that the weight of the forestry loads simply cannot be sustained by the roads on which they are being transported.
Another huge problem is one that has been raised with me by people in the tourism industry. In different parts of the country, formerly magnificent scenic views have been totally blocked out by a wall of dark green forest. A tree is small when it is planted but it is 12 ft or 14 ft within a couple of years and 40 ft by the time it is ready to be cut. It is like building a wall around a whole community and sometimes the trees are very close to people's houses. My view is that anybody proposing an afforestation project of more than 5 ha should have to apply to the local authority for planning permission. Any such project involves a permanent change of land use and a permanent change to the landscape. I introduced legislation in the previous Dáil to give effect to that provision and I intend to put it forward again in this Dáil. I hope the Government will co-operate with me and look seriously at the proposal.
On Leitrim County Council, all political parties, including Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, Independent representatives and the CEO agree that we need to have a planning permission requirement for forestry. There is also concern among local authority members about the amount of run-off coming from forestry. An acidic sap that comes out of the trees in October and November is getting into the water and causing a lot of pollution. In fact, the council tells me that apart from farmyard pollution, forestry is the next highest contributor to pollution in County Leitrim. It will be the same in many other counties if the intention is to expand the amount of land planted. There are consequences to that expansion and those consequences need to be examined and preparations made to mitigate them. We must work with people to ensure the Dáil is not still debating these issues in 20 years' time because some other problem has been created by poor foresight at this time.
The answers to all of these problems are most likely to be found among the people who live in these areas and are dealing with the problems. I appeal to the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, in particular to talk to people. The Green Party and many other environmental interests in County Leitrim are absolutely in tune with everything I am saying in this regard. They understand the problems and they see the way that conifer planting has destroyed communities. There is little use in somebody who lives far away telling us that trees are lovely and we should plant loads of them. Unfortunately, it is not as simple as that and we must work through the problems that are created by these issues.
One of the biggest problems is the change of land ownership. In places like County Leitrim, land is moving out of the hands of the community and into the hands of corporate interests. If it does not happen at the beginning, it happens towards the end. Farmers decide to plant their land and for 15 years they will get a premium on it. By that stage, they are getting a little older, they might need a hip replacement or whatever else, and they need to get a few bob together. They get the thinnings out of it but there is no more premium coming and it will be another 20 years before they see another bob. It is at this point that the company which brought away the thinnings may offer to buy the whole lot, and that is when the land transfers from local to corporate ownership. The same thing is happening all over the place. In some instances, the land is bought by corporate interests in the beginning and ends up under forestry.
These issues must be dealt with and I hope that happens in the next forestry programme. There are also issues around agroforestry and how it is operating. There is talk of only having six years of payment for agroforestry, which is nothing near what is needed. The issues around forestry are not just to do with how big companies are being allowed to go in, cut fast, get the product out and then replant. The issues are also around communities of people and rural neglect, and those are the issues that need to be dealt with first. When that is done and people have confidence, they will embrace forestry. Their problem is not with forestry itself but with the consequences of it. In my community, as in many communities throughout the country, people have a very negative experience of those consequences.
I understand the motivation behind this legislation. We know why these changes have to happen, but we also know that a lot more needs to be done in dealing with this sector. We will support the Bill. I hope the amendments we have put forward will be accepted by the Government and will help to bring a new day for the industry.
Glaoim ar an Teachta Mairéad Farrell anois.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Leas-Cheann Comhairle, leis an Aire agus leis an Aire Stáit. Ba mhaith liom mo chomhghairdeas a ghabháil leo chomh maith as a bpoist nua. Mar atá pléite anseo, tá a fhios againn go bhfuil an earnáil foraoise i gcruachás le tamall anuas. Lig an Rialtas a bhí ann i ndearmad í agus tá sé thar am é seo a phlé sa Seomra seo. Cuirim fáilte roimhe seo agus roimh an dea-obair freisin a rinne na hAirí féin le mo chomhghleacaithe.
Bhí tionchar tromchúiseach, ar ndóigh, ag na riaráistí achomhairc ar an tionscal seo le tamall. Tá na mílte daoine ag brath ar an tionscal seo chun bia a chur ar an mbord. Léiríonn sé an neamhshuim a bhí ag an Rialtas i gceantair iargúlta, ceantair atá buailte go trom freisin i dtéarmaí eacnamaíochta mar gheall ar Covid-19. Cuirim fáilte roimh bhunú rannáin chun dul i ngleic leis an gceist seo ach caithfimid a chinntiú go mbunófar é chomh luath agus is féidir agus go mbeidh na hacmhainní cuí aige. Chomh maith leis sin caithfear a chinntiú go mbeidh saineolas acu siúd a cheapfar ar an rannán seo mar go mbeidh siad ag teacht ar chinntí atá fíorthábhachtach don earnáil seo. Tá súil agam go dtabharfaidh an Rialtas tacaíocht do leasú Shinn Féin ina thaobh sin.
The reality, as we have discussed here, is that the forestry sector is in crisis right now. It is welcome that this situation is being discussed in the Chamber as it affects the lives and livelihoods of people across the State, especially in our rural areas, as my colleague, Deputy Martin Kenny, has outlined. The backlog of appeals has had a major impact on the industry and, as a result, the industry has faced a crisis. We know that this is not resolved, by January at the latest Ireland will need to import timber. In all likelihood, that will happen even earlier.
The issue was ignored by the previous Government, even though it has been on the cards since December of last year when it was highlighted in the Irish Farmers' Journal. This once again highlights the lack of planning by successive Governments for rural Ireland. These areas have also been severely impacted economically by Covid-19.
The establishment of the divisions is welcome but we need to ensure there is no delay in setting them up, and we must ensure the divisions are adequately resourced. A key concern Sinn Féin has with the Bill is that there is no explicit requirement for those appointed to the divisions by the Minister to have relevant expertise. I hope the Government sees sense on this issue and will support the Sinn Féin amendment to ensure members have expertise in biodiversity, water quality, climate change and environmental legislation.
As I said earlier, it is essential that we deal with this matter here today. It is vitally important that Sinn Féin amendments to this Bill are taken into consideration and supported by the Government to ensure the best possible outcome for the sector and, of course, the communities and the people affected by the Bill.
Táimid ag bogadh ar aghaidh anois go dtí Páirtí an Lucht Oibre. I will ask Deputy Sherlock to move the adjournment of the debate, so he will forgive me in advance for interrupting him at 5.09 p.m.
I will have concluded by then, le cúnamh Dé. Míle buíochas, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle. I rise to support the Bill. I welcome the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, and the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, and I congratulate them on their appointments.
The issues are well articulated. My colleague, Senator Annie Hoey, articulated the Labour Party position in the Seanad. While the legislation is necessary, it gives rise to many questions, one of which is forestry policy in its totality. The Labour Party is not convinced that this Bill alone is the answer or the panacea to the problems that exist within the forestry sector at present. I believe the Minister and the Minister of State acknowledge there are problems inherent with the process. We need to have these issues rectified if we are serious about ensuring we have a seamless, fit-for-purpose forestry sector that recognises the challenges of afforestation and increasing beyond 11% the rate of cover. We must also recognise that the process of applying for licences is clearly not fit for purpose. We need to investigate further after this legislation is passed, and presumably it will, why the process is not working. We are all aware, across the party divide in the House, that it is not fit for purpose currently.
I ask that a lot of energy is given to ensuring that once the Bill passes, there is a root and branch review of policy in general so the requisite staff are appointed and the requisite whole-time equivalents are appointed. We are told that additional staff are being appointed within the forestry service but we do not have a clear number of staff and the type of staff that are being appointed. Much of the work could be done internally on the licence screening process, with regard to triage of applications and in the assessment of the ecological or environmental impact elements, without diminishing the right of anybody to appeal.
There is much in this legislation that gives voice to regulations that will have to come into force after the Bill has passed. The Labour Party is worried about the number of regulations, as articulated in the proposed new section 14E. I would dearly love the Minister of State to respond specifically to the point I am about to make. I note that her officials are present. Section 14E provides for 14 regulations that must come into force. For this legislation to be taken seriously, the question that arises is when this will happen. What is the timeframe for bringing those regulations into force once the legislation has passed? According to the proposed new section 14E(1):
Without prejudice to the generality of sections 7(2) and 15, for the purpose of the conduct of appeals, and having regard to the need for efficiency in the system of appeals, the Minister may make regulations to provide for all or any of the following:
The section goes on to list potential areas of regulation in subsections (a) through to (n), providing, inter alia, for "time limits to apply to the making and conduct of appeals"; "the constitution of divisions of the Forestry Appeals Committee and the assignment of appeals to those divisions"; and "the form and manner of making of requests by the Forestry Appeals Committee for information from a party to an appeal, or a person other than a party". If we do not have sight right now of the timeframe, it could be argued that notwithstanding the bona fides of the Minister and Minister of State present in the Chamber in seeking to have this issue addressed, there is a danger that if those timeframes slip and are not tight there will be no systemic change in this process, notwithstanding the subdivision of the FAC, and there could be as many delays in the licensing process in the future as there are now. If we had some sight of how the Minister will deal with these regulations and when they will be put into force, that will give great confidence to the forestry sector and would allay some of the fears of people in the forestry sector. I ask the Minister to address that issue in response to the Second Stage debate.
We talk about afforestation policy and there are programme for Government commitments, but we are seriously lagging behind. I am not trying to make a party political point on this because we all agree on afforestation in this House. We want to see clear targets and we want those targets to be met. We want to ensure that the Minister with responsibility for biodiversity will set out a pathway for those afforestation targets to be met, and that we achieve targets greater than 8,000 in 2021 to offset the missed targets in 2020, 2019, 2018, 2017 and 2016. Ireland is abysmally behind the curve, and I say this in a spirit of co-operation. This Minister and the Government have an opportunity now really to hammer home the idea that Ireland needs to nudge well past the 11%.
That is something the Government would get support for, but only on the basis that it is not just blanket cover but an afforestation policy that ensures that biodiversity is not damaged in any way. I am stating the obvious as far as the Minister of State is concerned. The issue of afforestation and forestry policy needs to have a radical basis now. The Joint Committee on Climate Action in the last Dáil published a report containing clear targets which had cross-party support. The Minister of State will find that if she is radical in her approach to this, she will have the support of the majority of the Members of this House.
On the issue of fees I would ask the Minister of State to consider the impact of levying a fee. The Minister, arguably, is silent on the issue of the amount of the fee. It is another issue that will be given over to regulation or statutory instrument. What people want is certainty with this legislation. If the Minister of State is of a mind to instigate a fee - and it seems from her speech that she is absolutely clear on the need for a fee - we cannot have a situation where ordinary people, such as those for whom Deputy Martin Kenny spoke in places like Leitrim, are locked out of a process. Ordinary people cannot be locked out of the process by dint of the fact that there is a fee put in their way that arguably diminishes their right to make a genuine submission to an appeal. I ask the Minister to revisit that issue.
I repeat the point made earlier on the numbers and types of staff being appointed at present. How many people have been appointed in the past number of months since the Government was formed and across what positions? What are the proposals to appoint new people in the forestry service? Again, I reiterate the point that the Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture must come together and work with the Minister and Minister of State to shine a light into how the forestry service operates and unlock any of the impediments to the granting of licences in a way that balances the needs of industry with ensuring that the ecology and the environment are not damaged or put upon in any way. The committee must give a voice to all of the stakeholders and contextualise the more 9,000 submissions in public. If we are to agree a position on the workings of the forestry service, we must have an opportunity to have a hearing or some public articulation and give further voice, after this legislation is passed, to how we feel the forestry service needs to operate. We must hear from independents and others within the sector as to how they feel the forestry service should operate. I am talking about the stakeholders within the industry who are affected by the decisions of the forestry service day in, day out.
I also wish to give voice to the frustration of people, some of whom will also have contacted the Minister of State. I know of one forestry application that was 823 days in the system with no decision. I have learned of other applications that were 681 days, 713 days and 520 days in the system with no decision. It is unconscionable for any modern public or civil service to take that long to process an application or an appeal. It beggars belief. I know that the Minister of State is conscious of this problem but we need to get to a stage where this is no longer happening and the sooner, the better.
I do not wish to tarry. I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for the opportunity to speak on the issue. I have asked very specific questions and hope that they will be answered when the Minister of State responds at the end of this Second Stage debate. The Labour Party is generally supportive of the Bill but there must be a root and branch review of how the forestry service operates when all of this is over. That needs to happen as soon as possible.
I wish to speak in support of this Bill. There are 55,000 acres of forestry in County Clare. Nationally the sector employs 12,000 people and it remained buoyant during the last recession. It is a sector that should be valued in terms of licensing and felling in order to realise its full potential.
I welcome this Bill because it will make the appeals system more efficient and will reduce the backlog of appeals at the forestry appeals committee. It will also align forestry licensing with the planning process and its appeals system. County Clare is hugely impacted by all of this. Many constituents have contacted my office whose forestry applications have been in the system for inordinate and unacceptably long periods of time. They are extremely frustrated. At the same time, the building sector is running out of timber to build homes. There is a real urgency to removing the backlog which, as things stand, would take approximately two years to clear. A total of 382 objections were lodged this year and approximately 500 cases are awaiting a decision. Serial and in some instances vexatious objectors have been throwing in objections to forestry licence applications. Some of these objectors are the same ones that crop up in the planning process. Three key projects in Clare are on the back burner because of serial objectors, namely the Clonlara flood defences, the coastal erosion defences at Doonbeg and the bridge crossing at Killaloe. As we grasp this issue in the context of agriculture and forestry, we must also introduce pre-qualifying rules for those who object to planning applications. Someone living in Rathmines has no basis for serially objecting to planning applications in County Clare.
Finally, I hope that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine will encourage more of a mix of broadleaf trees. There has been a 2% increase in the planting of such trees in the past year but we need to see far more. In my constituency we have the Cratloe wood, timbers from which were used to roof the House of Commons at Westminster. It is a fabulous wood but there are lots of conifers in there now, driving out native species. We need to see more native trees being planted in there again.