Apologies have been received from Deputy Kehoe.
Before we begin, I remind members that, in the context of the current Covid-19 restrictions, only the Chairman and staff are present in the committee room. All other members must join remotely from elsewhere in the parliamentary precincts. The secretariat can issue invitations to join the meeting on Microsoft Teams. Members may not participate in the meeting from outside of the parliamentary precincts. I ask members to mute their microphone when not making a contribution, to use the raise hand function to indicate and to note that messages sent to the meeting chat are visible to all participants. Members of the committee will be prioritised for speaking slots.
The agenda for today is the ongoing issues in the forestry sector with officials from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. I welcome Mr. Colm Hayes, assistant secretary; Mr. Seamus Dunne, senior inspector, and Mr. Eamon O'Doherty, project manager. They have all joined remotely. We have received the opening statement and briefing material, which have already been circulated to members. We are limited in our time due to Covid-19 safety restrictions and so the committee has agreed to take the opening statement as read. I am going to give the officials, when I finish talking, five minutes to give an overview of how the Department will address the licensing issues.
Before we begin, I must read an important notice on parliamentary privilege. Witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they are to give 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. Witnesses are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given. They are asked to respect 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. Participants joining the committee meeting from a location outside of parliamentary precincts are asked to note that the constitutional protections afforded to those participating within parliamentary precincts does not extend to them. No clear guidance can be given on whether, or the extent to which, participation is covered by absolute privilege of a statutory nature.
As Chairman, I will make an opening statement to the witnesses to outline what has got us to where we are today. I am disappointed that the committee had to request the attendance of the officials here today. As a committee, we issued a report in March after extensive consultation with all stakeholders, including the Department. The recommendations in our report addressed the slow output of licences and other forestry issues, including ash dieback, which affect the forestry industry. We had hoped that the situation would improve but, unfortunately, it has not. Farmers considering planting trees have walked away in despair and with a complete lack of confidence in the industry.
I have tabled a number of parliamentary questions that relate to licences, planting, clear-felling for roads and thinning. The standard answer given is "contact us in nine months for an update", which is completely unacceptable. Some of these licences are in the system for two and three years.
Climate change and the challenges we face are a huge issues for the whole agrifood sector. Our failure to meet targets cannot continue. Over the last few years we have been 15,000 ha shy of our planting targets. This figure is based on 70% coniferous trees and 30% broadleaf trees, and takes into account the loss of carbon during felling and replanting. In the lifetime of those plantations, in terms of the targets that we have failed to meet, 5.8 million tonnes of carbon would be sequestered. It is criminal that these targets are being missed, which has a compounding effect on the rest of the agrifood industry and rural Ireland.
Today, we are not here to discuss Project Woodland, which definitely has a place in the future. We hope that many of its objectives can be implemented. Today, we are focusing on the low output of licences by the Department. On average, 87 licences were issued in the four-week period prior to the Oireachtas committee meeting in January. In the four weeks up to 18 May, on average, 43 licences were issued. Like other committee members, I have been inundated with calls from stakeholders, including representatives of mills that have had to import timber, forestry contractors who are going bankrupt or farmers who have been unable to get licences.
The forestry sector is hugely important to the economy and must be efficient. Today, we demand an output of 100 licences a week. A greater output would be ideal but 100 licences is the bottom line. At this meeting I would like the officials to tell us how they plan to achieve this target. When the output of licences drops below 100 in any given week, we respectfully request a report that outlines why this has happened and how output will be rectified for the following week. This is a frank statement but time is not on our side. This has long been an issue and I have dealt with it since I was appointed Chair of this committee last summer. The crisis is ongoing for four or five years and is a huge concern to this committee and to the Oireachtas, in general. I want to walk out of this meeting today with this issue resolved but if not then we intend, as a committee, to reconvene in the near future.
I give the officials five minutes to address the licensing issues and then I will open up the debate to questions from members. It is with a heavy heart that we have the officials back in here today but, unfortunately, the concerns of the forestry sector at the moment are paramount to us.