I formally congratulate the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, on her appointment. We need transformative change in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. I know that bringing about such change will be challenging but it is essential and I really look forward to working with both the Minister of State and the Minister to achieve it. I really hope this legislation is a bad start to a brilliant term.
As the Minister of State explained yesterday, there is a crisis in the forestry sector. The licensing and appeals system has been overwhelmed by delays, an issue which was not addressed until it was, in many ways, too late. This has been detrimental to our afforestation strategies, the industry and a great many jobs and it is now detrimental to an important appeals process as well. We all agree that an efficient appeals system is needed. However, this Bill is not that. The Government’s argument is that the appeals process needs to change but many of us believe the Department should simply deal with the appeals it gets.
Imagine if we dealt with other situations in the same way in which the Government is dealing with this one. Imagine if there was a really long waiting list for the driving test and, instead of carrying out more tests, we made it really hard and expensive to apply. It is quite difficult to imagine and that is why so many people are aghast at the approach being taken. This legislation fails to address the problem we have.
This is not a new crisis, as those in the sector have pointed it out repeatedly. In the four years for which the forestry appeals committee has been in existence, it has only heard 33% of the appeals lodged. The current average rate at which appeals are heard is 20 per month so, predictably, there is now a backlog of two years. We knew this would happen so why wait until breaking point to address it? I know the Minister of State is new to this brief and is not responsible for the inaction of previous Governments but it is worth acknowledging that this is ridiculous.
The sector understandably supports the Bill. However, it is the only solution the industry, which is on the brink of collapse, has been offered. Of course it is in favour of some kind of action. As with the national broadband plan and the children’s hospital, we are being presented with a unsuitable proposal at a time when people are so desperate that they are forced to accept it.
While the Government buys into its own rhetoric that it is saving the industry, it does not acknowledge that it is its own inaction and underinvestment that put the sector in this position and at risk in the first place. In future, a new approach is essential.
Time and again, when it comes to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, we see the same ridiculous turn of events unfold. We first see shortcomings on the part of the Department and its policies, this is then somehow not the focus of the debate and instead the industry is pitted against environmentalists and we have that pointless debate. The result is that the industry and the individuals who will be most affected by climate change are most worried about climate action. This is happening in every sector for which the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is responsible. The situation we are in today is a classic example of this.
From meeting representatives of the industry over recent months, I know that they do not take issue with an accessible appeals process. Their issue lies with the snail’s pace at which the Department is getting through them. Nobody I spoke to in the forestry sector has any kind of intention whatsoever of damaging the environment. The opposite is the case.
We know the forestry sector has to play a key role in addressing the climate crisis we are facing and the industry knows that too. It is a sad reality that this is not what we are discussing here today. That policies are not anywhere near good enough to address this, that these inadequate policies shape everything in the sector, and that the Department has not been able to process appeals adequately is not the fault of the industry nor the fault of people who have genuine concerns about planting and felling licences.
We can all agree that we need more resources and expertise in the licensing and appeals system to clear the backlog. There are solutions here that will not negatively affect a democratic appeals process and I seriously urge the Minister of State to consider them.
One of my amendments seeks to introduce a statutory obligation for "appeals to be heard in a timely manner". This simple change, which does not represent a redrawing of the whole system, will resolve the sector’s key concerns.
This legislation does not address some other major issues for the sector such as climate change and Brexit. More than 80% of our forestry exports go to the UK. We need to make sure we learn from mistakes like this. We cannot wait until this industry is in the midst of another crisis before doing something about it.
If we learn anything from the Covid crisis, it should be to prepare for future crises, particularly those we know are on the way. This Department should be leading the way with solutions to the climate crisis rather than creating the problems. Forestry needs to be recognised as one of the most important solutions here. The Department cannot continue to treat it like a poor relation of other agricultural industries. I would love to work with both the Minister and Minister of State to achieve this.
We need ambitious policy to help this sector not only to survive Brexit but also to create a sustainable industry. Given the Minister of State's specific brief, we should be using the little time we have on forestry to discuss a national forestry programme and its role in increasing biodiversity. Stakeholders have been calling for this for years. The programme for Government commits to creating one. We need to concentrate on this rather than on eroding regulations.
This Bill is being pushed through at a very irresponsible pace. The heads of the Bill and public consultation process were published on the Friday afternoon of the August bank holiday weekend, a tactic formerly used by the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government when releasing ever-increasing homelessness figures. That public consultation ran across August, when we know that people are less likely to engage.
This Bill is being rushed through the Houses of the Oireachtas. On Thursday, we were asked for amendments to the Bill before the Seanad had even made its amendments. At first I thought that, as a new Deputy, I did not quite understand the process but I quickly learned that this is extremely unusual and represents poor practice. The stages of the Bill are basically being rushed through as a box-ticking exercise.
Our primary role is to make legislation. We need to ensure that we scrutinise laws. Along with others, I am deeply concerned that due to the speed of the passage of the Bill, nuanced and subtle aspects have been overlooked that will potentially leave the State open to criticism and liability under national and international environmental commitments.
While there are welcome additions in the Bill, there are also many items which are not fully developed or are concerning for public involvement. The ability of the forestry appeals committee, FAC, to sit in all divisions will allow more appeals to be heard, and I welcome that. However, we must ensure this does not result in a diluting of expertise. There is no guidance in the legislation to ensure the divisions will have sufficient expertise to guarantee informed decision making. I have submitted amendments to secure the independence of the appeals committee. It is essential that the committees are populated with the right people and are separate from the Department. The Minister of State has likened this system to An Bord Pleanála, in which case the FAC should similarly consist of experts from relevant representative bodies.
We need commitments that the committee and its divisions will have sufficient knowledge of the industry, good forestry practice, biodiversity, water quality, climate change and environmental legislation. We also need commitments that the Minister will not appoint officers from the Department or the Government to the committee.
The legislation provides the Minister with the power to make regulations for the forestry appeals process. On the face of it, this is good as it allows changes to be made to address future obstacles. However, there is no clear Oireachtas oversight of this. It is a concentration of power in the Department without the necessary checks and balances.
The Bill introduces reasonable fees for appeals. I emphasise the term "reasonable" because the Minister of State said that the fees would likely be €20 for a submission and approximately €200 for an appeal. Similar to Senators Ruane and Higgins, I have submitted an amendment to change this to fees which are "fair and equitable". I urge the Minister of State to seriously reconsider her thinking on the issue of fees. I imagine the Minister of State would agree that the ability to participate in the licensing and appeals system should not be an economic privilege.
The Bill highlights the Government's perspective on public participation in decision-making. At the heart of a vibrant democracy is the engagement of citizens. The State needs to encourage involvement from communities, NGOs and everyone. This principle needs to underpin how government functions. However, in Ireland this is often not the case. Communities may believe they are struggling against the State. The Protect Our Native Kelp campaign in Bantry and the Save Our Skibbereen campaign against a plastics factory are two recent examples from my constituency of Cork South-West. It should not be left to such communities to raise vast amounts of money to put right these wrong decisions in court. Regrettably, in attempting to resolve the forestry appeals backlog, the Government is rolling back on one of our more progressive participatory systems. This is undoubtedly a mistake. Attempts to define who can be involved, financial barriers and the use of complicated mechanisms, such as the access to information on the environment regulations, erode the ability of people to contribute to decisions that affect their areas. This is at odds with good public participation practice. Furthermore, I remain unconvinced that it meets our commitments under the public participation directive and the Aarhus Convention. How robustly has this legislation been scrutinised? Can the Minister of State guarantee that this law will not be found in breach of the right to participate in environmental decision-making and to challenge public decisions?
Forestry can make a significant contribution to a sustainable economy that supports rural communities. The current forestry system is failing communities, the industry and workers. The erosion of regulation and the introduction of fees will do nothing to address these underlying issues. We need a new forestry programme, and we need it yesterday. The sector is in desperate need of reform. Stakeholders are ready for the challenge of developing an ambitious scheme that will define a new era in Irish forestry. We should be focusing on forestry policy that takes urgent climate action and supports the industry to do the same. We know importing timber is not the solution. We know using concrete instead of timber is not the solution. We know placing barriers into an appeals process is not the solution.
Ireland is the most deforested country in Europe. While reforestation is ongoing, most of it is with non-native plantations used for commercial forestry. While this is better than importing timber, these forests are poor habitats for wildlife. We need more broadleaf forestry. Government policy needs to incentivise both these approaches - the latter with urgency - for the industry to be able to do that. We need clear rewilding strategies, the conversion of portions of agricultural land to native forestry and the establishment of wildlife corridors. We need forestry on every farm, with special incentives in place along watercourses and special areas of conservation to generate connected wildlife corridors throughout the country.
I am supportive of aspects of the Bill but I also have serious concerns about it. I have submitted several pragmatic amendments based on my engagement with the forestry sector in west Cork, farmers, environmental groups, constituents and colleagues in the Seanad. I have balanced a variety of perspectives in addressing the appeals backlog, the right of public participation and the sustainability of the sector. Issues, including the independence of the appeals process, the involvement of experts, the participation of the public, the current crisis in the sector and the timely processing of appeals, need to be addressed. I call on the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, and the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, to look seriously at how they can accommodate the amendments that I and like-minded Deputies have submitted, as agreed at last week's briefing.