It is unfortunate the way this group of amendments have morphed a little bit and strayed. When this Bill was first drafted there was no facility whatsoever for residents to make representations to the competent authority. The Bill provided that the DAA could go to the competent authority and ask it to assess the situation. The select committee agreed with my amendments on Committee Stage and put in a provision for residents to be able to do that.
However, there was another part to that, that the decision on whether or not to investigate a complaint rested solely with the competent authority, which would decide whether or not to conduct an assessment. I do not have a particular problem with that. There may be spurious complaints and we do not want the authority to have to go through a full investigation. However, what I am merely providing for is that in the event that it decides not to carry out an assessment, it needs to inform the person in writing as to the reason for that. The way the Department has drafted these amendments means there is no facility for that bit to go in, unless it goes into the original text, which the Department has dramatically changed by splitting it into two parts. I want to hear from the Minister that the bit about it being in writing will be resubmitted with amendments Nos. 90 and 91 in the Seanad to properly deal with this issue. If it is not, we have a bigger problem, and I will come back to that.
On the matters the Minister spent most of his time dealing with, clearly the officials had time to write the speaking note to deal with some of the issues he was not able to deal with when they were raised on the floor of the House. We have a substantial problem, as do the residents, with the perceived lack of independence of Fingal County Council being the competent authority. The Minister's responses to us have not been adequate. He got very blustered and said that it was all history because when Fingal County Council's senior official wrote expressing these concerns, the Attorney General came back and said that there were no conflict of interest. Therefore, the matter was over. The Minister is, however, patently ignoring what the official said. She did not just raise an issue of a conflict of interest. She also raised the issue that Fingal County Council did not have the requisite competencies available of aviation operations noise and economic feasibility assessments and that another independent organisation would be better. That was in November 2017. On 30 January, the Minister announced Fingal County Council as the competent authority. In terms of freedom of information, and conveniently the freedom of information officer is on holiday this week, so cannot clarify this, no records have emerged to date of any meetings between Fingal County Council and the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport to address those issues the Minister said were extensively discussed with the three candidates, the other two being the EPA and the Commission for Aviation Regulation Ireland, CAR. Interestingly enough, there is no information under freedom of information about any intensive discussions with them either.
Can the Minister explain how, between November and his announcement in January, all these issues were addressed, particularly when we have correspondence under freedom of information where his senior official wrote back to Fingal County Council? This was in May more than two weeks after he made the announcement about Fingal County Council. It read:
See the link below. This issue about independence is likely to have prominence.
The link was to a debate that took place in Fingal County Council, where the elected councillors expressed concern about the lack, or perceived lack, of independence of their council. The official in the Minister's Department went on to say that the Minister was, of course, defending this robustly. I have not seen much evidence of that but we will park that. The letter stated, "Any help you might be able to give around defensive points would be appreciated". It further stated: "For example, as a starting point, I do not know if the proportion of Fingal rates that it is claimed is paid by the DAA - 20% - is correct." If the senior official dealing with this issue, after the date the Minister announced Fingal County Council as the competent authority, did not know the level of rate base of Fingal County Council, and its reliance on the DAA, and the Minister does not think that is a problem, then I think there is something seriously wrong with him, to be honest about it.
It is a fundamental problem and shows that the points about Fingal County Council's independence have not been adequately addressed. We do not have to rely on that correspondence alone. We also have correspondence from the EU expressing its concerns about the issue of independence. The Minister is saying that everything is okay and the issues have been addressed because the Attorney General said that there was not a conflict of interest. Let us say that we accept that, but the Attorney General did not say that there would be a conflict of interest with the Commission for Aviation Regulation or the EPA either. The conflict of interest issue is not the only consideration, as the competent authority also has to have expertise.
We now have a major problem because of the manner in which this issue has been handled. In that sense, the complaints procedure takes on even greater prominence. When the Minister's own Government colleague and Chair of the Committee on Transport, Tourism and Sport asks questions about letters and this information not being brought before the committee, it is an unprecedented problem. The manner of the Bill's handling in the House has been shambolic from start to finish. In some ways, my heart goes out to the officials. It is a difficult job, but we have tried to engage. I recognise that we have made improvements to the Bill, but if the Minister believes he can shout and roar in the Chamber and say that there is no conflict of interest and that the Attorney General will address the issues we have raised, he is wrong. Will he please address the issues that Deputies across the Opposition benches have raised about these points?