This is important legislation. I have been fortunate to speak on much legislation in the Dáil over the past 12 months, but this is a Bill about which I have mixed feelings. There are some very important aspects to it but it is unfortunate the Government has decided to include others. My views on this issue are based primarily on my experience as a member of Laois County Council for the past two years. I have dealt with the midlands waste management plan, which was to cover the counties of Laois, Offaly, Longford, Westmeath and North Tipperary. Most people find the inclusion of North Tipperary in the overall strategy unusual but I will deal with that in due course.
One of the Bill's main provisions is to give effect to the European Council Directive of 15 July 1975, the Council Directive of 18 March 1991 and the Council Directive of 22 April 1999. In view of the debate on the Private Members' Bill, it would be far more beneficial to tease out these issues in detail on Committee Stage. We have all learned during recent debates that it is important there be a full discussion and understanding of these matters and that people do not feel there is an overbearing, big brother attitude from the Council of Europe. We need to give greater attention to these issues because it is a matter of concern to most people that the Commission is taking Ireland to the European Court of Justice on the implementation of waste management provisions. It is possible that if we are found not to be fulfilling our obligations we may be fined in due course. I am concerned if that happens the European Commission will be seen as heavy-handed and threatening. If that is how Europe is perceived we will have to ensure people have a more positive view of Council directives.
To set this debate in a European context, I have figures which derive from the Commission and the Council of the European Parliament on the implementation of community waste legislation. This information covers all 15 countries and is the data on domestic and municipal waste management practices within the EU. The overall figures, taking the European Union as a whole, show that 14.4% of waste is being recycled, 19.6% is going for thermal treatment or incineration and 62.8% is going to landfill, with 2.9% going elsewhere. We are not as out of line with the European percentage use of landfill as some would have us believe. There is a very high level of thermal treatment and recycling facilities in some countries but when one looks at the Union it is correct to say that two thirds of all domestic and municipal waste goes to landfill. The figures here are obviously much higher. We are not as industrialised a country and we are not as short of space. It is not unnatural that we would have had a higher reliance on landfill in view of our easier access to land for such facilities than other countries.
I move on to the various regional waste plans that have been drawn up by local authorities. Looking at the midlands waste management plan covering the counties I mentioned, it is proposed that 46% of waste be recycled, 36% go for thermal treatment and 17% go for landfill. Roughly the same percentages are proposed for the north east, the Dublin region, Connacht, the south west, Wicklow and Donegal. There is a relative uniformity of approach in the reports presented to local authorities to inform the regional plans and, in one or two cases, county plans. There is a high level of consistency but the process of local authorities coming together voluntarily to draw up regional plans has been a sorry saga. It was not founded on a proper understanding of the roles of local authorities and councils. Council members did not fully understand the impact they could have on these processes. Most people approached the plans county by county even though they were regionally based. The fact that some areas have not been able to agree their plans while others agreed theirs under duress is an indication that there was insufficient education on this matter in the first instance. We have tried for many years to deal with the problem of waste and stop it all going to landfill.
When we look at the waste hierarchy it is obvious that the most important step is to prevent waste, then minimise it, reuse and recycle, then energy recovery and thermal treatment, what most people call incineration. What was proposed in many of the regional plans was pure incineration. There was no element of energy recovery in some of the regional plans and I speak specifically for the midlands. Ultimately some of the waste has to go to landfill. I accept that there is no such concept as zero waste. It is a simplistic solution some people put forward but life is much more difficult than that. We must embark on a major process of education, starting with the younger generation in the schools who will help to educate the rest of us. Some of the older generation will not change their ways on these matters as Government would like them to. These are cultural matters and cannot be legislated for and what is a long-term problem requires a long-term-solution.
There is no doubt but that section 4 will generate much controversy. Maybe there is no other option but it is regrettable that we must deal with this section.
Maybe local authority members did not fulfil their responsibilities. However, I want to defend members of councils. Section 4, which gives county managers legal authority to draw up waste management plans for regions, removes power from elected members and that will have a knock-on effect. It seems a simplistic solution. I remember that the function relating to the Traveller issue was also removed from elected members and given to county managers and it has made no appreciable difference as we still have a problem in this regard. In reality county managers cannot operate in isolation from the elected members in any case, so that while the plan might go through and the manager may have statutory power, that will not make the delivery of the plan on the ground any more acceptable to the community. If we are to avoid EU penalties we will have to show we have such plans in place and perhaps this is the way to do so but signing a plan will not make waste management happen on the ground.
My single greatest complaint regarding everyone who has been involved in this debate relates to the consultants who drew up these regional waste management plans. They did a bad job and presented bad reports after poor levels of public consultation. They did not bring members with them and this will go down as one of the worst exercises of its type.
I want specific answers. They may not relate to this specific Bill but they will come to be answered. Somewhere along the line the Comptroller and Auditor General or the local government auditor should look at the costs incurred by local authorities to date in drawing up their regional plans as one will find a gross waste of taxpayers' money. I cannot understand how almost every county councillor and journalist in the country was offered free, fully funded trips abroad to look at incineration plants. They did not look at recycling plants, properly managed landfills or areas where waste is being reduced; they were brought to incineration plants by and large. I estimate the cost for that running to hundreds of thousands of pounds. It was an effort by the consultants to soften up the elected members to accept proposals for incineration. As a person who always looks at financial matters, I feel the cost for that will come out some day and there will be a proper debate.
How much were those consultants paid who were working in areas which did not finalise their plans? How much were they paid for bringing forward a plan that was unacceptable to the community? Will they be paid in full? The same consultants are involved in many of the areas experiencing difficulties; could they have done a better job? If so, they should not get the full payment. This should be revisited on another day, as we got a bad return for that investment and it should be addressed properly in the future.
People might think I am being severe on the consultants but it is right to do so. We are now finding in relation to other projects, such as motorways, that if there is not full public consultation and engagement, we will not get a satisfactory conclusion. We did not have that in this process and perhaps the consultants need to learn. I think they came with templates to each region and that they only changed the front covers on the regional reports while what they proposed for different regions was consistent across the board and did not address local circumstances. If I am being critical of these consultants I feel entitled to be and I will continue to be because if we are not getting value for taxpayers' money we should highlight it here. They are the principal reason we are here with this legislation; the plans were not adopted at regional level because the consultants did a bad job. If they had gone about their work in a more inclusive way and educated people, they would have brought the people with them. People would have understood the issues better and they would not have had the same fears; some of those are justified but others may not be.
The midland region report did not carry one word, sentence, paragraph, page or chapter dealing with health, despite all the concerns expressed by the public about the potential impact on health. When we quizzed our consultants they blandly told us that it was a matter for the Department of Health and Children and that the EPA would issue licences, so it was not a matter for the local authority as ours was not a health authority. No wonder consultants' reports ran into trouble when they did not print one word about the potential effects or otherwise on health. They dodged the issue and that is why some of these reports are being rejected. Those consultants should not be paid; they almost have to pay a surcharge for the extra costs the country is having to incur by passing this legislation and in many cases they should be forced back through the process again. I will absolutely oppose the concept of any of the consultants involved in the project to date being reappointed to complete any of these plans anywhere in the country.
The departmental officials should take that into account and ask themselves why we are in this sorry mess today. We are not here because the Minister of State is trying to put the jackboot to local authority members and we are not here because local authority members have failed in their duty. Those members are responsible people like everyone else. Something went wrong in the system and much of the difficulty relates to how consultants presented their reports. We were given deadlines and told that we would have to accept these reports as each was a fait accompli. Amendments were resisted as we were told if one county made an amendment it would impact on a neighbouring county and if both did not make the same amendment it would not be valid across the region, hence every area was tied. The process was weak and flawed and I hope we have learnt a lesson for the future. The consultants have a lot to answer for as they are not the experts they put themselves forward as being.
As I have indicated, waste management starts with schools and children. I am particularly pleased that the Brigidine convent in Mountrath and Heywood community school, my former secondary school, have recently received green flags; that is the way of the future. I have encouraged pupils in those two schools to go back to their national schools with the green flag lessons so that children can start learning them and bringing them home to their parents.
I also highlight Atlas Oil in Portlaoise, which was visited by the renowned David Bellamy, as it is recycling contaminated soil from building sites around the country. It has a small facility in Portlaoise and it is making great strides in developing new technology to clean out contaminated soil so it can be reused.
I am also concerned about the cost of taking waste to a landfill; at present it is £50 per tonne in Laois, which means a 20 tonne lorry of refuse costs £1,000 to take to the local landfill. That results in illegal dumping from construction and demolition sites. Local authorities must be vigilant and determined to go after those dumping illegally.
The legislation mentions the EPA and I look forward to new legislation dealing with that body as I have only had one experience with it in Laois. It was a sorry experience as the EPA gave a licence to Bord na Móna to carry out work in a bog in Laois but no notice in respect of the work appeared locally. The EPA said it put an advertisement in the Bord na Móna head office in Offaly. Nobody in Laois would have a chance of seeing that. Notices should appear on every site and the legislation dealing with the EPA in this regard is flawed; that body told me it complied with the letter of the law. It might have complied with the letter of the law in issuing that licence but it did not comply with the spirit of it. I look forward to the protection of our environment and to dealing with waste management because these landfill sites have proper licences from the EPA. Public confidence in the EPA in County Laois has been shattered in recent months because it did not insist that a site notice appear on every site in respect of areas where licences were given to carry out certain activities.
The "polluter pays" principle has become a cliché. Who is the polluter? It is thought that if people buy a box of cornflakes they are the polluter because they end up with the box. In fact, it is the person who produces that box who is the polluter. The end-user is not the producer of that pollution. The emphasis must change to ensure we do not produce the level of waste and packaging that we have in the past.
Like many in Ireland, I condemn President George Bush for his breaches of the Kyoto agreement and the principles agreed in Rio de Janeiro by various Heads of State on global warming. He has taken a short-sighted view that looks no further than the balance sheet of particular companies. Protecting the environment is more important than that. David Bellamy visited Laois recently and I would like George Bush to sit and listen to him for an hour.