The Environment (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2014 looks like it is doing a certain amount of tidying up. It is tidying up some loose ends and endeavouring to comply with EU directives. That seems to be the main purpose of the Bill. No doubt the legislation is necessary to address certain anomalies in current laws and address the matters outlined. However, there are other more important pieces of legislation that should be included.
Part of the Bill concerns the role of the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, and there are clearly issues regarding the EPA's role that might have warranted more attention. I am thinking in particular of the ongoing problems with waste management and the disposal of waste. There are unresolved issues that remain regarding the large fire out in south Dublin last year - that plant - and I highlight that as one instance. There are issues regarding waste management and the storage of waste that we need to deal with.
I also hope the Minister's Department will deal urgently with a number of other proposed pieces of legislation under this brief. I note there is nobody here from the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. The Minister of State who is here is not from that Department. Maybe there is good reason for that, but the Minister brought the Bill before the Dáil and we have little enough opportunity to question Ministers or to highlight the key issues that we see as needing to be resolved. The Minister of State has been sent in here and it is probably not his fault, but the least the Government could do is send in one of the two Ministers in the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. I know there is one financial dimension to this, and the Minister of State who is in the Chamber is in the Department of Finance. I recognise that he does have a role for one part of this Bill but it is mainly an environmental miscellaneous provisions Bill. That is what the Bill is called. There is one specific issue with which the Minister of State will be dealing later on.
The change in the electoral law needs to be addressed urgently. There is proposed legislation there; I brought forward a Bill two weeks ago in respect of lowering the voting age and the Government passed it on Second Stage. While I welcome that, I do not want the Bill just parked. We need to be a bit more imaginative. The Scots have shown the way forward and have given 16 year olds the vote, and the world has not shaken because of it. It is a positive measure and we need to move ahead with those as well.
There are a number of other recommended changes to electoral legislation that came out of the Constitutional Convention, which should be brought forward. There is also an issue - the officials might take note of this for the absent Minister - regarding the planning Bills in the pipeline, the stated purpose of which is to implement some of the findings of the Mahon report coming out of the Mahon tribunal. We welcome that, but want to highlight the importance of doing it. I ask the Minister if it is proposed, as recommended by the Mahon report, to establish a new office of an independent planning regulator? That is the key point of Mahon and it should be legislated for. Most people, if not all, in this House want to see the planning system tidied up. We do not need to rehearse what went before us here and we certainly want to put a stop to that. Hopefully we can have that independent office, but the Minister responsible might give me an answer regarding the recommendations of the Mahon report.
Part 3, section 17 provides that the agency will now have an integral role in air quality and monitoring air pollution as well as in prevention, control and enforcement. The main issue here is around bituminous coal or smoky coal. There are on-the-spot fines and fixed penalty notices. That is perhaps a more effective and efficient way of doing it. I wish to highlight one issue, namely reports of smoky or bituminous coal being sold as well as other fuels that do not come into the smokeless category, particularly in larger urban areas.
It is important there is an effective method to deal with that.
I have a concern in regard to peat or turf. The smoky coal ban is being rolled out across the State and it now applies to towns with a population of over 15,000. We do not want to be seen to penalise small-time fuel suppliers in rural areas who cut and save a small amount of turf and sell it to neighbours or people in the immediate locality. Smoky coal, or bituminous coal, is causing huge problems in terms of pollution and there are reports of it being brought in from other jurisdictions. However, a small amount of peat or turf being cut and saved and sold on a small-scale is not causing a major problem in regard to pollution.
I refer to section 20 relating to two new fixed payment notice offensives under the European Union (Paints, Varnishes, Vehicle Refinishing Products and Activities) Regulations 2012. There is provision for a new fixed payment notice of €1,000. I am not an expert on paint products, although I used to know a bit more about them at one time when working beside a panel beater. At this point, the products in this State may not be completely converted over to more environmentally friendly types. I am concerned that we give people a bit of space. Obviously, stocks should be allowed to run out.
I am also concerned about small-scale operations and panel beating shops. We live in a country of 6.5 million people but in a State of just under 4.7 million people. By and large, paint shops, or panel beating shops as they were commonly known until a number of years ago, operate on a small scale. This is not the middle of Berlin or the middle of London. When one goes outside the M50, one is talking about small-scale operations. Even in medium-sized towns, one is typically talking about one, two or three people working in panel beating shop or a paint shop, doing car finishing and repairing crashed cars. It is important we do not come down too hard on those people. I can think of a few operating in my area. They seem to make a real effort to run a good operation, to comply with the planning laws and so on. We need to be careful the provisions of the Bill do not hammer those people into the ground.
We hear the normal complaints from small businesses about all the regulations, the VAT requirements, the Revenue requirements, the local authority rates, the planning conditions, the development levies with which they must comply and, therefore, we need to be careful in the case of panel beaters and people repairing the bodies of cars. That sector is, by its nature, small, and it is very small down the country. The operations in my area have one, two or three people working in them. The largest one of which I can think has three people working in it and they are from the one family.
I refer to section 24 which replaces An Bord Pleanála with the EPA as the appeals body for decisions made by local authorities on the licensing of certain small-scale activities under the Act. That may make perfect sense in that the EPA will have expertise available to it which An Bord Pleanála will not have. However, whatever procedure is put in place, let us try to make it as straightforward as possible. Let us not make it an over-bureaucratic and a long drawn-out process. We must have common sense in this regard. Along with everything else, when trying to get a project up and running, people must deal with regulations, and rightly so. However, it is important that with that change-over from An Bord Pleanála to the EPA as the appeals body, the appeals mechanism is kept as simple and straightforward as possible and as quick as possible so there is no undue delay. As a result of some of the delays with An Bord Pleanála, cases go on for months and projects drag on from one year to the next. We must try to avoid that at all costs.
In regard to Part 4 extending the fee base of the EPA, the Minister is obviously giving the EPA an opportunity to charge what he describes as an appropriate fee given the work, research, investigations, inspections and so on it must do. It is important the fee is appropriate, is not excessive and proportionate to whatever matter the EPA is examining. It is important it does not become a cash cow. There is a cost which is carried by the taxpayer. Somebody must pay which is always the case. We recognise that but we do not want to see this becoming a revenue stream. The EPA must be funded as it carries out a very important role. However, fees must be applied in a cautious and measured way.
Another significant provision in the Bill relates to road tax and the non-use of vehicles. We certainly welcome what is being done and the extension of the period of notification from ten days to 21 days. Ten days is too tight and I think the Government has acknowledged that. That is a very positive move which will be welcomed. It is a more reasonable and a more workable proposition than ten days.
I would like to use the opportunity to highlight the issue of road tax. The Minister will be aware of an issue in regard to the taxation of HGVs. The road network must be maintained and road taxes must be collected. The change from ten days to 21 days will help road hauliers if it applies to HGVs. Hauliers have a problem in regard to vehicles when they are off the road and not in use. However, there is a big issue in regard to the differential between this country and Britain and the North of Ireland in terms of costs. We have been lobbied on this over the past number of months, as has the Government. The concern we have is that some operators have already relocated to England, the North of Ireland or to other countries. Nobody wants to see those companies relocate, set up depots or set up part of the business in other countries. County Wexford, in particular, has been badly affected by this.
There is also a problem in the midlands, including in County Laois where I live. Hauliers are hauling goods - it is a free market so nobody can stop this - out of County Laois, for example, with trucks based in other countries.
They could be based in Britain or anywhere in continental Europe and they are running loads out to the Continent. If local hauliers could compete, they would be able to get that work. I know the Minister of State is taking note of this and I thank him for that. Not alone are we losing the road tax, but we are also losing the PRSI, VAT and revenue on the fuel. There is a range of costs, including, of course, the jobs we are losing. If 20 or 30 jobs are relocated to Newry, it is not too bad as it is up the road and at least it is some benefit to the island of Ireland, but if they go off the island, to Bristol or Liverpool, we are really in trouble. Will the Government keep this issue in mind and try to do something with it? We asked in the last budget for something to be done with it. That did not happen. The haulage industry is operating on very tight margins. I know hauliers who are doing the same runs they were doing 20 years ago but they are doing them for lower rates. That is how cut-throat it has become. It has become very difficult to operate. They simply cannot compete with companies that are based in other jurisdictions. One regularly sees Eddie Stobart, the Scottish firm, on the motorways. They are able to compete. They are able to come in, pick up loads and take them out, and run loads in and out of the midlands or the west or anywhere along the eastern seaboard. They can do it at a price that the hauliers in this State simply cannot. The rates for the work have been pushed further and further down. We must take note of that. I ask the Government to keep it under review. It constantly says it is for jobs. That is fair enough. We are for jobs as well. We can create jobs at a very quick rate, but if we are haemorrhaging jobs at the same rate, we are in a standstill situation. We do not want to see jobs lost off the island of Ireland. We want to keep those haulage jobs here and give the haulage industry a level playing field to operate on.
In the amendment to the waste management Act, Part 6, section 23, fixed payment notices are being introduced again. I can see the benefits of that. I would like to see that expanded to take into account illegal dumping. Clearly the penalties for that are insufficient. Extensive illegal dumping is taking place. There is the small-scale stuff where people just throw stuff out the windows of cars and vehicles. All was revealed in the last month or two, when the frost kills back the growth on the sides of the road, and they are littered. The countryside is in a shocking state in places. Around every town and village there are people driving out. They are not always driving bad vehicles - some are driving very good 141- and 142- registered vehicles - and dumping rubbish in the countryside. They are not always people who are on the breadline. Some people who are on the breadline are more conscientious about these things. Unfortunately there are people who are unscrupulous and they are destroying the countryside. We need to deal with it in environmental legislation. What is there at the moment is not up to the mark. The Government will have to take action on this. Tidy Towns committees have been in existence as long as I have. I remember hearing about them as a child. There was a Tidy Towns committee in the town I grew up in, doing work and everything else. There are people in rural areas gathering rubbish, pulling it out of hedgerows and gateways every morning.
It is destroying the countryside, it is damaging the environment, and it is damaging tourism as well. People come here from continental Europe and take a spin through the countryside, only to see black bags shoved into every gateway and paper cups from Supermacs, McDonald's and wherever else littered along the sides of motorways. I regularly see people out along the sides of motorways with litter-pickers, walking along with a big truck behind them, picking up the rubbish that people throw out through the windows. They are obviously doing it at night when no one can see them. They just fling out these things when they are finished with them. There is a role for education in this. It baffles me that schools are doing green flags and everything like that, and yet people have it in their heads that when they are finished eating and drinking in a car, they just fling the rubbish out through the window and think somebody else has to pick it up after them. In a carpark recently, I saw four separate piles which, when I looked closer, were in the shape of a parking space, with a white line on either side. Obviously people in the back and front of the car had been having a takeaway. They wound down the windows and dropped the rubbish out of each side. One could see the four containers and the empty snackboxes left in the carpark. They drove away and left the four piles after them.
Laois County Council - the taxpayer, the public - must pay a man to go out the next morning to pick up this, day after day. It is one of the things we need to look at as a society, to get our act together on this and make a serious attempt to change the culture.
There are some issues that we will be looking to change and we will be putting forward amendments when the Bill moves to Committee Stage. The Minister of State, wearing his Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government hat, might take on the issue of road tax, particularly in respect of trying to keep jobs here. We must be cautious how we move forward in relation to some of the matters I raised. I look forward to Committee Stage, on which we will be tabling amendments.