Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

EU Regulations

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for selecting this Topical Issue matter for debate. This matter is of great concern to tens of thousands of people. I am glad the Minister of State at the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, Deputy Noonan, is here. He will recall that we discussed this proposed EU regulation in a Topical Issue debate on 16 July. During that debate, I requested that the Minister of State consult those who would be affected by the regulation, which proposes to ban the use of lead of gunshot bullets. On that occasion, Teachta Clarke also raised the issue of the presumption of guilt, which would be introduced by the regulation. She also referred to the definition of wetlands in the Ramsar Convention being intended for use at a global level, and not locally, regionally or nationally. The Minister of State acknowledged the challenge that the regulation would pose to farmers and gun owners. He also acknowledged the challenges presented by the Ramsar Convention definition, as well as the proposed buffer zones. People were reassured when the Minister of State acknowledged and accepted those concerns. On that occasion, the Minister of State stated: "While the Commission has proposed to progress this measure, I believe it is time we received some support on this matter." He also told us he was "more than happy to meet with the lobby on this issue".

After that exchange, I emailed the Minister of State to formally invite him to meet groups, such as the National Association of Regional Game Councils, NARGC, but I did not receive a response. On 3 September, Ireland voted in the registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals, REACH, committee to support this regulation. Despite several attempts to get clarification from the office of the Minister of State, it was only on 15 September, via a response to a parliamentary question that I had submitted, that we received confirmation that Ireland had voted to support this regulation. All the evidence suggests that the Irish position was changed at the direction of the Minister of State. If that is the case, I would consider it to be an act of bad faith, as would the thousands of farmers and gun owners who will be impacted.

I have no doubt we will now hear that all will be well and any issues arising will be handled during the transitional phase. I do not believe that will be the case. I fear that it is the intention of the Government to overcome the challenges posed by the Ramsar Convention definition of buffer zones by banning the sale and use of lead gunshot entirely. If that is not the intention, I invite the Minister of State to outline how it could possibly be workable to implement this regulation in Ireland.

I have a letter from the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, as it was known, dating from June, stating that "the various issues raised by Ireland relating to a longer lead-in time for Member States without restrictions and issues surrounding buffer zones around wetlands do not appear to have been addressed by the Commission in the current draft of the regulation. Accordingly, Ireland is unable to support the current regulation in its current form, unless changes are made to address these concerns". Will the Minister of State tell me what changes were made in the time since that letter was written? Was it simply the case that the position of the Minister of State changed and then the Government's changed? People will be interested in hearing his response regarding this issue, especially since I have emails from the National Parks and Wildlife Service, NPWS, from just days before the September vote, indicating that Ireland would reiterate its concerns at the meeting on 3 September. How did this current draft differ from the previous version? On what date did Ireland formally change and reverse its position? Did the Minister of State intervene to sign us up to a position that will create substantial difficulties and costs for Irish farmers and game club members without any consultation?

I thank Deputy Carthy for bringing this matter up today.

He is correct in saying that this issue was discussed as a Topical Issue matter on 16 July, when Deputies Carthy and Clarke raised this subject. It is good for us to be able to discuss it again today. I will update the House on the background to this issue. As I indicated in July, the Agreement on the Conservation of African-Eurasian Migratory Waterbirds, AEWA, was developed under the UN Convention on Migratory Species. Ireland signed up to the agreement in 2003 and it includes a commitment that "Parties shall endeavour to phase out the use of lead shot for hunting in wetlands as soon as possible in accordance with self-imposed and published timetables." I am happy that Ireland's position is to support the AEWA commitment to phase out the use of lead shot over wetlands.

Separately, and directly related to our discussion here this evening, the European Commission published a set of draft regulations in early 2019 for consideration by member states on the use of lead shot in and around wetlands. The draft regulation was discussed by member states at some meetings of the European committee on the registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals, more commonly referred to as the REACH committee, as Deputy Carthy has said. Following discussions at a meeting of the REACH committee last June, the European Commission submitted a draft set of regulations for a vote by member states by written procedure.

The main proposals in the regulation involve a transitional period of 24 months for those member states banning the use of lead shot in guns in or around wetlands; for those member states with wetlands which exceed 20% of their territory, the transition time is extended to 36 months, provided member states also ban the purchase and use of lead shot in all their territory, not just on wetlands; fixed buffer zones of 100 m around wetlands where lead shot possession and shooting would be prohibited; and a definition of wetlands that is used in the Ramsar Convention.

As I indicated to the House in July, I support fully the underlying thrust of the regulation and I am committed to phasing out lead shot in wetlands, given that lead is clearly undesirable and can cause harm to the environment and water birds. Many member states have had restrictions on the use of lead gunshot in place for many years. Ireland, on the other hand, has had no restrictions at all. I know that we are not completely alone in that regard and that a small number of other member states also do not have restrictions, but we are in a minority. It is true that for those member states which have some national regulation already in place, many gun owners would have guns with non-lead shot ammunition and any transitional challenges to meet the requirements of the proposed regulations would thus be mitigated.

In the case of Ireland, as we currently have no restriction, statutory or otherwise, on the use of lead in gunshot, the regulations would pose a challenge to us in implementing and properly enforcing a new regulation in 24 months in a situation where member states are more advanced than us with regard to national regulation. I understand that in Ireland, some farmers' and hunters' guns may not be capable of using lead shot substitutes and they may need to purchase new guns. In addition, the definition proposed to be used for wetlands is that defined under the Ramsar convention, that is, wetlands of international importance, which includes peatlands, and this would cover relatively large areas around the country. These Ramsar areas are not currently all mapped and given the scale of wetlands in Ireland, this would take some time and, therefore, enforcement would present us with challenges.

My Department held consultations with interested parties including hunting and farming interests on this matter. While the Department has always supported the underlying thrust of the regulations and is committed to phasing out the use of lead shot in and around wetlands, it made a case for a longer lead-in time to deal with the transitional challenges which I have outlined and, in that regard, submitted documentation to the registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals, REACH, committee.

As the Deputy may recall from when we discussed this on 16 July, the Commission has proposed that a vote on the draft regulations was to be taken by written procedure on the day before our discussion but then decided to terminate that voting procedure. At the time of our previous discussion, we were awaiting further clarification from the Commission on how it intends to progress with this matter. Since then, the issue was discussed at a REACH meeting held on 3 September. Notwithstanding Ireland's reservations about the lead-in time, since we are committed to phasing out lead shot in and around wetlands, Ireland indicated at the meeting that we would support the draft regulation. A vote was taken at the meeting on the draft regulation and it was passed by the necessary majority of member states with Ireland voting to support the measure. The draft regulation will now be sent to the Council and European Parliament for scrutiny for a period of three months.

While we recognise that there will be some challenges to us relating to implementation if this proposed regulation becomes law, Ireland, like all member states, will have to rise to the challenge and we will do this in consultation with stakeholders. I am satisfied that the long-term implications of the regulation would be of benefit to Ireland, its citizens and the environment.

That is bizarre. The Minister of State spent the bulk of his contribution reiterating the exact comments that he made during our previous debate, which outlined the concerns and challenges involved, then said that we will face down those challenges at a different stage. He mentioned the consultation with some of the organisations that have an interest in this. He did not state that the conversation took place after the vote, which is incredibly disappointing. The Green Party spent some time at its online conference asking why people in rural Ireland do not like it. Notwithstanding the suggestion from a Green Party Senator that it should just use smaller words, I can tell the Minister of State that it is actions, such as the one he has taken, that lead people in rural communities to think that his party is out of touch and deaf to their concerns.

The Minister of State was presented with a regulation. He was told that the regulation would create significant difficulties for farmers and game clubs, the very people who are needed to champion conservation measures and protect biodiversity. He was simply asked to ensure that the full consultation process would happen and take place with them before he supported the regulation, and he could not do it. I do not understand why that is the case.

He has made a decision that will put a significant burden on a number of gun holders. Will he commit to ensure that people who are out of pocket because they have to change or modify their guns will be compensated in full? Will he commit to consult with those people who will be affected by the implementation of the regulation? If he is, will he outline the process and nature of that consultation? People will take a commitment to consult with a grain of salt. In recognition of where we have been up until this point, will the Minister of State outline the form of that consultation? Whatever needs to be done to protect our environment has to be done. All I am asking is that the people who are on the front line in protecting biodiversity and the environment are consulted before decisions that affect them are made. That is not too much to ask.

As the Deputy said, I met representatives of the NARGC. It was after the vote on 3 September. I had a constructive meeting with them. There were difficulties but it was constructive. I recognise the conservation efforts and work that council members do around the country, including on grey partridge and other projects. They do fantastic work in that regard.

As a general principle, I am fully supportive of the proposals that led to the ban on the use of lead shot in and around wetlands, given the threats posed by lead in the environment. At the same time, I fully appreciate that there will be challenges for hunters and other gun users to overcome to meet the requirements of this draft regulation should it eventually be passed by the European Parliament. My Department has liaised directly with farming and hunting stakeholders over the past year or so and we are aware of the challenges involved. There will be challenges for Government in this as well. For example, the Commission's proposal for buffer zones of 100 m around wetlands is an added difficulty when trying to enforce any new restrictions.

In following up on a commitment that I gave to Deputies when we discussed the matter in July, I met members of NARGC which represents the interests of the hunters, and we had a useful and frank discussion on the issue. I will meet the Irish Farmers' Association separately, specifically about this.

My Department has argued at the REACH committee for a transition period of more than the two years proposed by the Commission, especially for member states that do not currently have any restrictions. My Department submitted written documentation to the REACH committee in that regard. As I indicated earlier, notwithstanding our reservations on the transition arrangement in the draft regulation, the Commission put the proposal to a vote without a revised transition period. Since we are committed to phasing out the use of lead shot in and around wetlands, which I strongly believe is the correct approach, Ireland voted in support of the draft regulation, which was passed by the necessary majority of member states, and would have been the case anyway. We were aware that the proposal would have been carried irrespective of how Ireland voted, given the level of support. In the circumstances, I believe Ireland took the correct decision to vote in favour to signal our support for protection of the environment and of health, not just for wild birds but for humans too.

I outlined my commitment to the Deputy again and I will continue to hold consultations with the relevant stakeholders to try to address those concerns. They are valid concerns and I want to try to address them in collaboration with the various stakeholders.

School Facilities

I appreciate this being included on the Topical Issue agenda today. It is a local issue, especially in the parish of Ballyroan, where Sancta Maria College is located. I thank the Minister of State for her attendance to take the question. It is a serious issue.

As background, Sancta Maria College has a brand new building. It is barely open. It cost the taxpayer a lot of money. It is proud educational infrastructure in the heart of the community. It is an all girls school, serving the local community of Ballyroan, Ballyboden, Knocklyon, Firhouse and beyond. It was with great shock, given the efforts made by the Minister for Education and Skills, departmental officials, teachers on the ground, school staff, including caretaking staff, secretarial staff and ancillary staff, parents and children to get back to school and to ensure that the school community was up and running even with the severe restrictions and challenges posed by Covid, that the school found itself in a situation this week when the heating system broke down. Obviously these things happen but the school was then told it would be closed until next week. A consequence of this is that pupils returned home. It is of particular consequence and anxiety to students and their parents who are studying for the leaving certificate to be sent home and to lose time, having already lost three to four months of the school curriculum in the lead-up to the leaving certificate in 2021. They were then told that learning has to move online, which has proven satisfactory in some subject areas and unsatisfactory in others.

I raise this issue today as a matter of priority on their behalf.

I hope the Minister of State will have news on funding to be provided, if necessary, to repair the heating system in a brand new school. She may also be able to give the community some information on how a system like this can break down so soon into its operation and lifespan. Will she give some kind of reassurance to the school community, and the students and parents in particular, on when normal operations will resume at Sancta Maria College?

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. On behalf of the Minister, Deputy Foley, this provides me with the opportunity to outline the current position on the problems experienced by Sancta Maria College in Rathfarnham, which the Deputy alluded to earlier this week. A major building project has been under way at the Sancta Maria College since 2015, which is delivering major refurbishment works and an extension to the college.

As part of this project, the heating in the system was upgraded to bring it to a modern standard and some further works were also done to ensure any outstanding snags in the heating system would be done in the summer break of 2020. The main contractor for the contract, L&M Keating, returned to the site after the national Covid-19 shutdown of construction sites but progress has been extremely slow since the resumption. The main contractor ceased work in early July and has not returned to the site since.

I am not sure if the Deputy is aware but in recent days, the main contractor has applied for examinership, which has been granted on an interim basis. I understand it will be confirmed at a hearing in the High Court on 12 October 2020. My Department's building unit is aware of the problem with the heating system in the school and was told at lunchtime on Tuesday, 6 October, when the school emailed, seeking approval to appoint an engineering contractor to resolve the issues. That afternoon, the board of management at the school was authorised to have all necessary works carried out by the engineering contractor. This work has, therefore, been authorised outside the existing main construction contract in order that we can ensure, as the Deputy stated, that the heating systems can be brought back to full working order as quickly as possible.

He will be glad to hear that the school principal has informed my Department that the work to the heating system is scheduled to commence tomorrow, which is Friday, 9 October. It is anticipated the work will be completed in time for the school to reopen on Monday, 12 October. I hope that is seen as good news by the Deputy. If he has further questions, we can liaise on them.

That is good news for the school community and its parents and teachers. There is no point in labouring the issue. I am grateful for the comprehensive reply given by the Minister of State. It is very bad news to hear about the contractor, and that this was a cause for the school closing.

There is another matter, as blended learning has had to be used and there was an understandable lack of preparation because the school could not anticipate that it would have to move to online learning so quickly after resuming normal schooling. I am grateful to the Minister of State and her officials for supplying the information so quickly. I am also thankful that the funding was authorised for Sancta Maria College to proceed with the appointment of an engineering firm to address the problem as quickly as possible. Next Monday is as early as possible a date for this to be done in the circumstances. I ask the Minister of State to thank the officials in her Department for that.

I will do so. The Department will continue to work with Sancta Maria College on all the other matters as well. I note the Deputy's comments on blended learning, and with Covid-19, the Department and the Minister are acutely aware of such matters. We must support schools where they find themselves in a position where the pupils cannot attend or buildings must close for whatever reason. It is something we are looking at on a daily basis.

Sitting suspended at 5.55 p.m. and resumed at 6 p.m.