I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I welcome the opportunity to introduce the Forestry (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill. I thank the Dáil's Business Committee for agreeing to waive the requirement for pre-legislative scrutiny of the general scheme of the Bill due to the urgency of the need to introduce this legislation. For the same reason, I have requested that this House consider a motion to enable the President to sign the Bill earlier than would be routine.
Since being appointed Minister of State with responsibility for land use, biodiversity and forestry, I have been extremely excited by the prospect of shaping the opportunity that forestry offers to the environmental, social and economic well-being of our country. The programme for Government is ambitious in the context of the sector and I am determined to work with all stakeholders to realise this ambition. My commitment and that of the Government to the advancement of Irish forestry is unequivocal.
The sector has been experiencing its fair share of challenges in recent times, not least the ongoing difficulties with issuing licences for afforestation, roads and felling. I am acutely aware of these issues and my first and most pressing priority is to ensure that we have an efficient and functioning licensing system. Notwithstanding current difficulties, we must look towards the future of forestry and how best the sector can serve the environmental, social and economic needs of local communities and our society in general, because this has not always been the case. The greatest action to help meet these new aims will be the development of a new national forestry programme. I am committed to the development of an ambitious new programme and to us starting the discussion on same in autumn. This will require full stakeholder engagement, and I look forward to working with Senators.
We must first overcome the current difficulties and get the licensing system functioning for all. The reasons for the delay in issuing licences are well documented and have required the most fundamental changes to our licensing system in its history.
As I am sure Senators are aware, there is a crisis in the forestry sector as the licensing and appeals system has come under significant pressure in the past two years. There are delays in issuing licences which relate to the licensing process itself, which my Department is addressing and I will speak more about that later. There are also long delays in determining appeals against licences issued. It is fair to say that the appeals system and the forestry appeals committee are currently overwhelmed. The delays being experienced are unfair to both stakeholders and citizens. A timely and efficient appeals process is needed and that is why this Bill is being introduced.
The Bill includes a suite of measures which will deliver a much more effective and efficient process which will meet and balance the needs of all. To provide some background, I will say a few words about the licensing system that is in place for afforestation, tree felling, forest roadworks and aerial fertilisation. My Department is the sole licensing authority for such licences and determines all forestry licence applications at first instance. All licences must be issued in compliance with EU and national environmental legislation, including the 1992 EU habitats directive. The licensing procedure allows submissions by third parties at application stage and provides for appropriate consultations with any relevant consultation bodies. Applicants and third parties dissatisfied with a licence decision of the Minister may submit an appeal on that decision to the forestry appeals committee within 28 days.
Since the introduction of the Forestry Act 2014 in May 2017, there has been an upward trend in the number of licences being appealed, with 14 appealed in 2017, 105 in 2018, 235 in 2019, and to date this year there have been 402 licences appealed. While the forestry appeals committee has increased the number of decisions issued year on year from 31 in 2018 to 172 so far this year, it is not keeping pace with the appeals received and this is the nub of the problem. A total of 490 cases, including 390 cases appealed in 2020, are awaiting decisions of the forestry appeals committee at the moment.
I have been engaging intensively with all relevant stakeholders on these issues and am acutely aware that the current delays in issuing licences have led to serious difficulties for people involved in the forestry industry. If no action is taken, we could very quickly face the prospect of sawmills running out of timber and of job losses, particularly in rural Ireland. The delays in hearing appeals are affecting the timber being felled and transported to sawmills and are influencing planting rates. To date this year my Department has established just under 1,941 ha of new afforestation, which is down by 35% on this time last year and is way off our national targets.
Before moving on to the specific provisions of the Bill and the public consultation process undertaken, I wish to point out that the Bill is not being delivered in isolation. We are also addressing other issues and delays with forestry licensing. It must be acknowledged that decisions on granting licences have been slow and we now have a significant backlog of applications. This arose in response to a substantial change in our appropriate assessment procedures which deal with the impact of projects on sensitive European sites. In the past year we have completely overhauled our assessment process and it is now robust and responsive to the environment in which we operate. While mistakes were made in the past, these are actively being addressed. This has meant that the Department has had to revise procedures, increase resources, develop training and guidance and strengthen its ecological team. While this has taken time, we now have a sustainable system. We are tackling the backlog through a dedicated project plan which operates to key performance indicators. A project manager is in place and a project management board is overseeing and monitoring delivery weekly. This plan is already yielding progress, with the number of felling licences issued in August the highest for the past 13 months in both volume and area.
The action taken in improving the number of licences issued must be matched by a responsive appeals system or a bottleneck will develop at the appeals stage. This is where we are now, which is why this Bill is so important. To ensure full public participation with these proposals, the draft Bill was published and opened to consultation for four weeks. I very much welcome the fact that almost 9,000 submissions were received by the closing date. This shows that this is an issue of intense public interest. While the vast majority of the submissions indicated support for the Bill in general, most did not engage with the details or specifics of the Bill.
The submissions received have been examined and categorised by whether the submission came from industry, private individuals, public representatives or others and by whether they were in favour of or opposed to the draft Bill. The submissions were also grouped and analysed based on the Bill head or section addressed. I have provided Senators with a copy of the report - it was circulated earlier - which summarises the main outcomes of the public consultation. This has been published to coincide with the publication of the Bill.
Careful consideration has been given to specific suggestions made and, as a result, the Bill I am presenting to the House has been updated to take account of the feedback received. All submissions will be published on my Department's website in due course in a suitable format that meets GDPR requirements.
The main provisions of the Bill include: increasing the capacity of the forestry appeals committee to determine appeals by enabling it to sit in divisions of itself; enabling the forestry appeals committee to determine appeals without an oral hearing where it is possible to properly dispose of an appeal in that manner; providing the Minister of the day with a regulation-making power to specify, among other things, the procedures to apply in relation to appeals and for related forestry appeals committee matters generally; and the introduction of reasonable fees for appeals.
Updates that have been made to the Bill to take into account suggestions made during the public consultation process include the following. The new Bill will make no change to the right of applicants and all third parties to appeal directly to the forestry appeals committee. All third parties will, therefore, have the right to appeal. This is quite rare in Europe. In Scotland, for example, once a licence is issued, that is it and there is no option to appeal. The right of third parties to appeal is a very important aspect. The quorum required for the forestry appeals committee to sit will be set at two. This will consist of a chairperson or deputy chairperson and at least one ordinary member. This is to increase the efficiency of the committee.
The Bill will provide that licensing decisions may be affirmed, varied or set aside and returned to the Department. This provision will clarify the role of the forestry appeals committee. There will also be a requirement for all information and documentation to accompany an appeal in order for it to be valid. This is to ensure the efficient functioning of the committee. The Bill will also provide clarity as to the circumstances in which the Minister might issue a general policy directive, that is, when prioritising certain classes of appeal having regard to the need to ensure the economic and environmental yield of forest goods and services in the State. All of these amendments are necessary to remove the delays currently being experienced in the system and to reduce decision times in the forestry licensing system overall.
I will now go through the Bill in a little more detail. Section 1 deals with the definitions of the Forestry Act 2014 and the Agriculture Appeals Act 2001, hereafter referred to as the Act of 2001.
Section 3 covers the amendment of section 14A of the Act of 2001. It provides for the appointment of deputy chairpersons to the forestry appeals committee and for the committee to sit in divisions of itself. It also provides for the quorum of the committee to be two persons, for a time limit of 28 days to launch an appeal and for the deletion of the provision that a decision of the forestry appeals committee may be appealed to the High Court on any question of the law.
Section 4 deals with further amendments to the Act of 2001. These include provisions for procedures and arrangements for the conduct of appeals, including oral hearings, and for the types of decisions the forestry appeals committee may make. It allows the Minister to issue general directives as to policy prioritising certain classes of appeal. It also enables the Minister to make regulations having regard to the efficiency of the system of appeals and the publication of documents relating to appeals on the forestry appeals committee website. It also gives the Minister powers to prescribe fees by regulation.
Section 5 amends the Act of 2014 and allows for the publication of application documents on the Department's website. It also deletes certain sections of the Act to allow for the making of regulations to prescribe fees following the procedures outlined in the Act of 2001.
Section 6 outlines the transitional provisions for the coming into operation of the provisions of the Bill. In effect, operational matters related to the composition of the committee come into effect immediately upon enactment of the Bill, as do directives from the Ministers.
Fees may be imposed on licenses made on or after the Bill comes into operation.
Notwithstanding current difficulties, we must also look forward to the future of forestry and to how best the sector can serve the environmental, social and economic needs of local communities and of our wider society in general. The biggest action to help meet these new aims will unquestionably be the development of a new national forestry programme. I am committed to the development of an ambitious new programme and that we will start that discussion shortly. As I said earlier, this will require full stakeholder engagement and I look forward to working with my colleagues in the Seanad and across the Oireachtas on this issue.
In concluding the introduction of this Bill to the House, I assure Senators that it will bring important efficiencies, proper procedures and operational clarity to all stages of the forestry licence appeals process. It will provide for forestry licence appeals to be conducted in a fair, straightforward and timely fashion. While I know this will not change the situation overnight and there is more work to be done, the proposed Bill - along with our project plans for managing the licensing backlog - will greatly improve the overall system and result in an increase in the number of licences available for planting and felling as a consequence. This will protect jobs within the forestry sector. In that spirit, I look forward to our debate on the Bill's provisions and on the reform which it can put in place. I commend the Bill to the House.