I welcome everyone to the meeting. Apologies have been sent by Deputy Michael Healy-Rae. The Deputy said that he would have liked to have been here but that he is not able to be within the Dáil precincts today.
I remind members that in the context of the current Covid-19 restrictions, only the Chairman and staff are present in the committee room and that all members must join remotely from elsewhere within the parliamentary precincts. The secretariat can issue invitations to join the meeting on Microsoft Teams. Members may not participate in the meeting from outside the parliamentary precincts. Members should mute their microphones when they are not making contributions and use the "raise hand" function to indicate if they wish to speak. Speaking slots will be prioritised for members of the committee.
The agenda today is to discuss the challenges facing the forestry sector. This is one of a series of meetings the committee has been holding to discuss the forestry sector. After today's meeting, it is hoped that the committee will be able to put together a report and recommendations to the Minister on the sector.
I welcome the officials from the Department of Agriculture and the Marine, Mr. Colm Hayes, assistant secretary, Mr. Seamus Dunne, chief forestry inspector, and Ms Patricia Kelly, head of forestry division, all of whom join us remotely. We have received the opening statement, which has been circulated to members. We are limited in our time due to Covid-19 safety restrictions so the committee has agreed that the opening statement will be taken as read so we can make full use of the session for questions and answers.
Before we begin, I have an important notice on parliamentary privilege. Witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Those participating in the committee meeting from a location outside the parliamentary precincts are asked to note that the constitutional protections afforded to those participating within the parliamentary precincts do not extend to them. No clear guidance can be given on whether or the extent to which their participation is covered by absolute privilege of a statutory nature.
We had a meeting here with the Minister of State, Senator Pippa Hackett, and her officials, some four or five weeks before Christmas and there was significant disquiet - to put it mildly - with some of the answers and information we got on that day. The committee gets the dashboard from the Department each week, which is most helpful. It is six months since the Department set targets for itself in respect of the industry. Unfortunately, every week we see that the Department is coming in significantly below its self-prescribed targets for forestry. There has been much focus in the past on felling licences. I have received a great deal of communication in recent weeks from the private sector from people who feel that there is a serious bias towards Coillte in the issuing of felling licences at the moment and that the private sector is not getting its fair share of licences. There is a serious shortfall in afforestation and in the issuing of licences. If we do not plant now, in 30 years people will say "What was Ireland doing and why was there such a shortfall in planting in these years?" I hope we will get answers from the Department on how these issues will be addressed.
As matters stand, we will be lucky to hit 20% of the afforestation target in the programme for Government. That is a serious issue. As I have said, the private sector also has serious issues with felling. The other issue on which I would like to hear the Department's proposals is ash dieback, which is an issue we have dealt with in a previous meeting. Forest owners who are affected by ash dieback feel extremely aggrieved. I would like to hear from the Department officials whether they have plans or proposals on dealing with ash dieback.
Deputy Carthy was the first to indicate that he wanted to speak. He had indicated to me that he must attend a meeting of the Committee of Public Accounts and asked to be given the first opportunity to speak. Due to his clash of engagements, I will allow Deputy Carthy to put the first set of questions to the Department officials. We cannot hear Deputy Carthy. His microphone must be muted.