Business of Joint Committee.

DEPUTY SEÁN FLEMING IN THE CHAIR.

Apologies have been received from Senators Paudie Coffey and Dominic Hannigan. The first item on the agenda is the minutes of the meeting of 18 December 2007. Are they agreed? Agreed. Is it agreed there are no matters arising? Agreed.

The second item on the agenda is correspondence. Items have been circulated to members and I will go through them briefly. The first item is No. 47, the European Commission legislative work programme 2008. I suggest we note the correspondence. Is that agreed? Agreed.

In regard to planning matters, I refer to the follow up correspondence arising from the meeting with An Bord Pleanála.

We have that correspondence and I believe there is a reference to An Bord Pleanála. I read the letter and we will come to it in a minute.

We should note No. 48, SI 820 and 821 of 2007 regarding waste management which have been laid before the House. I have asked that, as a matter of policy, the committee get statutory instruments laid down by relevant Ministers. No.49 is the Value for Money and Policy Review Initiative — Review of the Rural Water Scheme. Is it agreed to note the report? Agreed.

No. 50 is SI 818 of 2007, the Wexford Borough Boundary Alteration Order 2007. I suggest we note this order and write to the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government asking for timely copies of such requests received from all local authorities for such alteration. It is a change in the boundary between Wexford Borough and Wexford County Council. There is agreement on both sides.

My constituency touches on Deputy Hogan's in a place called Graiguecullen and I am sure parts of his constituency touch on parts of County Waterford. We should write to the Minister asking if there are any other requests for similar boundary changes in the Department and to give us the details.

We must ask the Department how the Wexford people could agree with each other to such an extent.

It is the one county.

There are many boundary proposals in other counties.

One would not want to try it in Cork.

The financial considerations associated with these boundary changes come into play between county councils and town councils and they are not easy to resolve.

It is good that we can note agreement between the two relevant local authorities. There are many difficulties throughout the country. I was a former member of the MAI, like a number of members here, who were members of both county and town or borough councils where there are great difficulties. There should be some mechanism in place.

A boundary commission was established to examine these applications. In my county it has been a long-standing one. I am not sure whether it has been resolved since I left the county council.

In cases where towns have extended into the rural area there should be a meeting of minds about extensions of boundaries in the hope that they can be mutually agreed. Agreement is a big word in these circumstances. There are difficulties and, as Deputy Hogan stated, there are financial considerations. I am sure some mechanism could be put in place to address those difficulties. In my experience, having been a member of a town and county council, the people living in those areas are the ones who get short changed. There should be some mechanism put in place to make it easier to address the concerns of both the town and the county.

That was a borough council, Wexford.

Wexford is a borough, one of the five left.

The only point I want to make clear is that from my reading of this documentation it would be in respect of administrative boundaries. It would not have an impact on electoral boundary changes. The ongoing review has to do with electoral boundaries, which is an entirely legally separate issue.

That only applies to county boroughs. It does not apply to borough or town councils.

Would Senator Glynn explain that again?

I refer to the five county borough councils of Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Waterford and Galway, as distinct from the five boroughs which are part of electoral areas. In the case of a county borough, however, there is the ward system which would be entirely different. The county boroughs operate the same powers as a county council but the boroughs are merely a chartered urban district council in the old sense.

The Chairman mentioned electoral boundary areas. It is important that there would be an input from the relevant local authorities throughout the country into the ongoing review. The Minister and the Department for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government should seek a submission from the various local authorities. There were two local government Acts passed in the early part of this century and under Better Local Government there have been many changes, such as the establishment of the directors of services. There are engineering areas within local authorities and the electoral areas should correspond to them within local authorities, streamlining them into a more structured boundary. It is important that there would be an input from the members and the relevant local authorities.

Is Deputy Bannon suggesting that the Minister, in seeking submissions, should formally request each local authority to make a submission?

Is that not done?

It is to the Department. It is not an independent one.

Was there a notice?

No. I have not seen it yet. I would say it is imminent.

I would be requesting that.

That all local authorities should be written to?

If they wish.

If they wish, yes, because there may not be agreement as often this must go before the members.

The big word is "agreement".

It is back to Senator Glynn's word again. We will write to the Minister directly on that point on the boundary changes and also to request information on what other requests for boundary changes have been received by the Department.

There is much misinformation on this. There are 21 members of Longford County Council at present and the headline on the front page of my local newspaper stated that it would reduce the weight of members. This is causing much public disquiet in many local authorities around the country and it is important that we would get clarification on this as soon as possible.

The next item is No. 51 which is the follow-up correspondence from An Bord Pleanála subsequent to our recent meeting. An Bord Pleanála gives the details of the number of planning permissions granted by the board in 2006, which was 1,741, or some 46% of all appeals. The number of planning permissions refused by the board was 2,044, or 54%. The ratio of those granted to those refused is almost 50:50.

It is a lottery.

The chairman of the board on the day stated that there was further information to come back to us on matters such as the qualification of board members. That was an issue raised. We did not get that information in this letter.

It is not in that letter anyway. We will check if it has arrived either before or since. If not, we will return to the transcripts of the debate that day.

We discussed the issue of carrying out percolation tests where there is an application for housing or other development not connected to the public sewerage system. There are varying practices from county to county. It is done in some counties by the local authority and sometimes by the engineer on behalf of the applicant. Even merely to establish the practice, I propose the committee write to the Minister following this discussion to ask local authorities to inform the Department and, through the Department, others of the arrangements for carrying out these tests. There seems to be wildly different patterns in neighbouring counties.

Another issue I ask the committee to follow up with An Bord Pleanála — I am sorry I missed the meeting when the chairman attended — is the number of officials who have become seconded subsequently to inspectorate positions in the board who may have served in a local authority, particularly as planning officers, and who adjudicate on applications that come before them. With the best will in the world they would find it difficult to have a dispassionate view about how such applications should be dealt with.

Would they be on the same cases?

Yes. If public representatives were involved in this way there would be a tribunal about it. However, there are cases of which An Bord Pleanála should be mindful, where officials who have been working in the local authority should not have to deal with applications that come before them subsequently arising from appeal because their view would already be clouded by the manner in which they, as part of the local authority system, would have approached it. In the same way that councillors must dissent from making decisions at meetings on matters in which they have an interest, officials should not have to deal as inspectors with matters from an area where they have served previously as officials of the local authority.

That is reasonable. We will write on that basis asking for clarification on the issue directly from the board because we did not raise the matter on the last occasion.

No. 52 is an e-mail dated 11 January from the Irish Environmental Forum seeking a meeting to discuss legislation and the EPA. I understand they are from Askeaton, County Limerick. I would not be of a mind to invite the group. I do not know who they are. As such, should we write asking for more information about their organisation? They call themselves the Irish Environmental Forum. It is a two-paragraph letter from a man in Askeaton, County Limerick.

We need more information on that matter.

Yes. We could not have a meeting with a group when we do not know who are its members. We will acknowledge the letter and ask the person concerned to provide further details of the organisation and the work in which it has been involved, and then we will reconsider the issue. Is that agreed? Agreed.

No. 53 is a list of policy priorities published by the Slovenian Presidency of the EU. Is it agreed that we note it? Agreed.

No. 54 is follow-up correspondence from the Department of Finance subsequent to our meeting on the electoral register. I suggest we note it and consider it as part of the report we will produce on the electoral register.

Our visit, and the other addendum the Chairman put to his comment, is worthy of a special meeting of this committee.

Our visit to Belfast on the electoral register. I found the visit extremely useful——

It was helpful.

——and it would be remiss of us not to make the optimum use of it. There are many fine suggestions that we can take on board in putting forward a recommendation to Government to have the situation rectified. The situation is disastrous and has been since I entered public life in 1979. Despite people's best efforts, nothing has changed under successive Administrations. Every local authority of which I am aware, including that in my area — Westmeath County Council — has done its level best. However, the system is just not working. We must adopt a new system because that which is in place has failed.

I welcome the acknowledgement that there has been a failure. It was a failure on the part of the former Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.

There has been a failure on the part of successive Administrations. The Deputy should not quote me out of context. I am always fair.

I support Senator Glynn's assessment of our meeting in Belfast, which was an extremely helpful exercise. Are there any proposals in the context of how we should proceed?

The next item on our agenda for today is a discussion with the Data Protection Commissioner in respect of the electoral register. When that is concluded we will have a discussion among ourselves and a draft report, which will include everything we learned in Belfast, will then be compiled. It will take a couple of meetings to draft the report.

We obtained a great deal of information at our meeting with the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland and his staff in Belfast. We should write and thank our host, Mr. Douglas Bain, for facilitating our visit and for being so courteous on the day. The individual in question referred to electronic voting.

We offered to sell him our machines but he would not take them.

It is important that we should make a decision in respect of the storage of those machines, which is costing local authorities a fortune. We must get rid of them because I am of the view that they will never work. It would be better to take a decision sooner rather than later.

I am sure that topic will be referred to and included in our report when we come to draft it.

Never is a long time.

I do not believe we could issue a report without referring to that matter.

We will discuss it and express an opinion in respect of it.

No. 55 is an invitation to a series of climate change lectures which we will forward to the Joint Committee on Climate Change and Energy Security. We will note the correspondence. The Joint Committee on Climate Change and Energy Security is dealing with that matter.

Nos. 56 and 57 are two newsletters, one from Friends of Europe and the other from GLOBE Europe. I suggest we note these.

No. 58 is a letter from the French Embassy, which arrived via the Ceann Comhairle, suggesting the establishment of an interparliamentary body on sustainable development. I suggest we forward the letter to the Joint Committee on Climate Change and Energy Security.

I suggest that it also be sent to the Interparliamentary Union, IPU.

We will do as the Deputy suggests. We received a further item of correspondence, which is not on the list, from Keith Gordon in Sidmonton Road, Bray. Mr. Gordon states:

I am writing to you as chairman of the Joint Committee on the Environment, Heritage and Local Government on behalf of the families of the two deceased firefighters who were killed while attending a factory fire on 26 September 2007 in Bray, County Wicklow.

As you may be aware, the O'Shaughnessy and Murray families have embarked on a campaign for a full-time fire service and an independent inquiry into the events of that day.

As a result, both families would like to request that a small delegation from the campaign make a presentation to the committee highlighting the many problems faced by the retained firefighters in Bray. I would be very grateful if you could facilitate us in this request.

I propose that we agree to meet the delegation and the Minister of State, Deputy Killeen, who has responsibility for the fire services, when a suitable time can be agreed.

During the debate on that issue, which contemplated the wider matter of establishing a national fire agency, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, gave a commitment to review the matter. As the Chairman is aware, a series of Ministers have had responsibility for considering this matter. The former Ministers at the Department, Deputies Cullen and Dempsey, were of the opinion that a national fire authority should be created. However, during the term of office of Deputy Roche, the matter slipped off the agenda. It appears that conferring responsibility for the fire services on the 34 local authorities appears to have been the approach the latter wished to adopt.

In light of the tragedy in Bray and the Farrell Grant Sparks report, which recommended the creation of a national structure, the current Minister put forward a recommendation in respect of this matter. It might be advisable, in the context of our hosting a delegation from the families' campaign, for the committee to obtain from the Minister some information regarding his current position on this issue.

I spoke to the Minister of State, Deputy Killeen, who indicated that he would be happy to attend the meeting.

Since our previous meeting, the Minister, Deputy Gormley, made a speech in which he referred to planning authorities and placing a cap on developments in villages. I did not see the Minister's speech but perhaps we could obtain copies of it because of the serious nature of the announcement. Most members would have a view regarding how such a cap would be implemented. If the Chairman could obtain a copy of the speech, we could discover whether the Minister is intent on introducing regulations or legislation.

Perhaps he was just making a speech.

I hope that proves to be the case.

If we obtain the speech, we will circulate copies to members. Did the Minister refer to capping the size of developments in villages?

He referred to putting in place a cap of 15% or 20% on the future growth of particular settlements.

We will obtain copies of the speech.

The next item on the agenda relates to four EU proposals that were referred to the committee for information purposes. These are COM (2007) 455, COM (2007) 470, COM (2007) 611 and COM (2007) 669. We have not been asked to do anything with these proposals other than note them. Is that agreed? Agreed.

At our meeting on 11 December last, we agreed to revisit a proposal, COM (2007) 364, governing the regulation of political parties and funding at European Parliament level. As our written observations are required in respect of this proposal, I have had additional briefing notes from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government circulated to members. This material issued in advance of our previous meetings. Copies of it are also available. The proposal in question deals with the regulation of political parties and rules for their funding. The information notes refer to the negotiations on this matter that took place in Brussels. Have members had an opportunity to consider the proposal and the information notes?

I suggest that we place the matter on the agenda for our next meeting.

We will do so. I do not think we will spend too much time considering the matter because I am sure it has been examined at length by the European Parliament.

The next item on our agenda is a presentation from the Date Protection Commissioner. I propose a short suspension until our guests take their seats.

Sitting suspended at 2.07 p.m. and resumed at 2.08 p.m.