General Scheme of the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (Consequential Provisions) Bill 2020 (Arrangements in relation to Fluorinated Greenhouse Gases): Department of Environment, Climate and Communications

The next item on the agenda is the briefing by Department officials on head 6 of the general scheme of the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (Consequential Provisions) Bill 2020 (Arrangements in relation to Fluorinated Greenhouse Gases).

I welcome Mr. Errol Close from the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications to the meeting. Mr. Close is appearing remotely from inside the Leinster House complex. Mr. Close, the format of the meeting is that you will be invited to make a brief opening statement and this will be followed by a question and answer session. Before we begin I draw your attention to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the Chairman to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of your evidence. Witnesses 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. I also wish to advise Mr. Close that any submission or opening statements he has made to the committee will be published to the committee website after the meeting. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

On the subject of mobile phones, I remind members and witnesses to turn off their mobile phones or switch them to flight mode. Mobile phones interfere with the sound system here and make it difficult for the parliamentary reporters to report the meeting. Television coverage and web streaming will also be adversely affected.

I invite Mr. Close to make his opening statement.

Mr. Errol Close

With fewer than 100 days to the end of the transition period, the Government remains focused on delivering its readiness programme work which is being supported by all parties in the Oireachtas. New legislation is required to underpin these readiness measures and I would like to thank the committee for creating this early opportunity to discuss the legislation. As members may recall, last year the Brexit omnibus Act was enacted. It sought to provide contingency measures to address issues arising out of a no-deal, cliff edge scenario. As the withdrawal agreement was concluded, the majority of the provisions in the 2019 Act cannot be commenced. By contrast, the proposed 2020 Bill is intended to deal with permanent change that will arise at the end of the transition period. It forms a vital part of our national Brexit readiness preparations. The legislation aims to address the wide range of complex issues that could arise for citizens and businesses post transition. It will seek to protect citizens and consumers, facilitate the sound functioning of key sectors and ensure our businesses are not disadvantaged. The Bill is also intended to support aspects of the common travel area and North-South co-operation. It is expected that the final version of the Bill will be brought before the Oireachtas later in the autumn. I am happy to engage with the committee in progressing this legislation and minimising uncertainty for business and citizens.

Part 6 of the Bill concerns arrangements in respect of fluorinated greenhouse gases, F-gases. This Part will address the issue of certification for individuals who work with fluorinated greenhouse gases in their activities in critical sectors such as refrigeration, air conditioning and heat pumps, mobile air conditioning, fire suppression, solvents and electrical switch gear. The current arrangements, whereby mutual recognition of technical qualifications and certifications from UK institutions in the area of F-gases applying across the EU, will cease at the end of the transition period on 31 December 2020. The Government has had a recertification scheme in place since July 2019 to enable individuals and companies with UK F-gases certificates to avail of a free-of-charge process to receive an Irish, EU 27 certificate to enable them to continue to operate in the EU including Ireland. Significant communications activity has been undertaken to raise awareness of the scheme. Up to 27 September 2020, 2,883 individuals have applied for recertification with 2,860 of these applications having been processed. It is difficult to get firm figures given the nature of the sector but it is estimated that there are between 3,000 and 4,000 affected individuals.

Notwithstanding the success of the recertification scheme, there remains a risk that a cohort of currently UK-certified individuals will not be aware of or engage with the recertification scheme until the conclusion of the transition period, when the current recertification scheme will expire in line with mutual recognition. This would require these individuals to retrain. Given the critical nature of the sectors involved, it is proposed to afford a further extended period beyond the end of the transition period to enable these individuals to recertify. Part 6 of the 2020 Brexit omnibus Bill therefore includes provisions similar in nature to that included in the 2019 Brexit omnibus Act to afford these individuals a further six months' validity on their existing UK certificate to continue to operate. It also affords them the first four months of this six-month period to apply to the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, to receive an Irish certificate enabling them to continue to operate in Ireland and across the EU. We propose that these provisions will support continuity of service in these critical sectors in addition to protecting employment and individual livelihoods. We would be happy to discuss any questions committee members may have in order to provide further clarity on the application of this Part.

I thank Mr. Close and will now take questions from members.

I thank Mr. Close for his remarks. He raised two issues. He said that there is the certification of the UK institutions in the area of F-gases and also referred to the free-of-charge process to convert to the Irish, EU certificate. Is there any difference between the two certifications? What volume of applications has Mr. Close seen to date for the Irish certification?

Mr. Errol Close

As it stands today, if someone has a UK certificate they have a mutually recognised EU certificate in a certain category under the F-gases regulation. When they exchange that for an Irish certificate, they will be able to get an EU 27 certificate which will survive after the end of the transition period. They will have the same certification level as they have today but it will be enduring after the end of the transition period. The UK certificate will not endure because mutual recognition will expire. We have seen 2,883 applications as of last week. The vast majority, 2,860 applications, have been processed at this time.

My question refers to point No. 12 in the remarks which were provided to us beforehand by Mr. Close, stating that this would require the individuals to retrain if they do not get the certificates verified in time. How long would it take for an individual to retrain if they have missed all of those deadlines? On the 13th point in the document, stating that the period is going to be extended further beyond the end of the transition period to enable those individuals to rectify it because they missed it in the first instance, is that going to be the six-month extension Mr. Close mentioned? If they fail to rectify it within that timeframe having been given plenty of time, how is it envisaged to communicate to the same individuals about the extension period that they have?

Mr. Errol Close

The training timeframe will depend on the type of certificate they hold in their hands at present. It can take from a matter of days to weeks to retrain. In some instances people have undertaken these training exercises as part of an overall apprentice scheme. They will not need to go back and do the full course. We are probably talking about a week to two weeks, depending on the type of certificate they hold. There would be an additional cost associated with that as well. In terms of the extension, the Senator is quite correct. It is for the six-month period that I stipulated. They need to have a valid UK certificate immediately prior to the end of the transition period, that is, by the end of this year. They have six months' further validity under the proposed primary legislation to continue to operate in the sector and the first four months of that period to apply to the EPA. The reason for the difference between the four and six months is that two months allows the EPA the turnaround time to process any certificates it gets in the first four months, before the end of the six-month validity period.

I apologise if this is an obvious question, but is there a reciprocal scheme in respect of recognition of certifications from Ireland in the UK? I am thinking particularly of people with these skills who may be working on a cross-Border basis. Mr. Close mentioned that there are very few days left and we anticipate that this Brexit Bill is going to be coming through the Oireachtas very rapidly, judging from previous legislation. I hope it will not proceed too rapidly to allow discussion. This is a very specific measure in potentially a longer-term timeframe than the Bill that was before us last year. What other environmental equivalence measures might be considered in looking to anticipate climate and other targets?

How do we ensure there will be measures in the Bill around environmental regulation across other sectors, will those measures be in the Bill or will there even be a mechanism in the Bill for the future consideration of those? I know there are a lot of sectors where there are high environmental regulation standards and there may be concerns around any undercutting or undermining of that in the medium term. I do not know if that will be in the Bill so I apologise if that is not relevant.

Mr. Errol Close

I will take the first of the Senator's two questions. My understanding is that the UK will continue to recognise EU certificates. People who have Irish or EU 27 certificates will be able to continue to operate in the UK. The other important point to note is that when recertify they are allowed to retain their UK certificates so they do not have to surrender that. They will have both a UK certificate and a new Irish or EU 27 certificate.

The Senator was talking about cross-Border matters and it is important to note that under the Northern Ireland protocol, the F-Gas regulation will continue to apply in Northern Ireland. People who, for example, are going back and forward in their daily business carrying these gasses will be able to move across the Border and their certificates will be recognised in the North under the Northern Ireland protocol and the F-Gas regulation on an enduring basis.

The broader omnibus Bill provisions are the only part that are relevant to my Department. There are no other environmental or climate related parts from my perspective. This is considered on an ongoing basis with regard to the potential need for secondary legislation and that may arise between now and the end of the year. The other part is to watch the ongoing negotiations and a component of that is the level playing field. That will have a bearing to a certain extent on environmental alignment between the EU and the UK on an ongoing basis.

On behalf of the committee, I thank Mr. Close for attending today. This has been a worthwhile engagement. I propose that Mr. Close will withdraw from the meeting and we will continue in private session to deal with housekeeping matters. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Sitting suspended at 11.52 a.m. and resumed in private session at 11.53 a.m.
The joint committee adjourned at 1.13 p.m. sine die.