Official Report (Hansard)
Date: Wednesday, 25 March 2009
Members present for all or part of the proceedings:
Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson)
Ms Martina Anderson
Mr Tom Elliott
Mr Ian McCrea
Mr Barry McElduff
Mr Francie Molloy
Mr Stephen Moutray
Mr Jim Shannon
Mr Jimmy Spratt
Mr Seamus Gallagher ) Northern Ireland Environmental Link
Mr Sean Kelly )
The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy):
You are very welcome. The format is that you make an opening statement and then make yourselves available for questions. We have tried to stick to a timetable but, unfortunately, time has crept up on us. However, we want to give consideration to this important session and we look forward to what you have to say.
Mr Seamus Gallagher (Northern Ireland Environment Link):
I begin by thanking the Chairman and the Committee for inviting us, and for giving us the opportunity to address the Committee on its consideration of European issues. I am Seamus Gallagher, and with me is Sean Kelly. We are policy officers with Northern Ireland Environment Link (NIEL). Unfortunately, our director, Sue Christie, was not able to be here today and she sends her apologies. With your permission, I will begin by briefly introducing Northern Ireland Environment Link and going through some of the main points from our consultation response. We will then, as you said, take questions.
The Northern Ireland Environment Link is the networking and forum body for non-statutory organisations concerned with the environment of Northern Ireland. It has 55 full members that represent over 90,000 individuals, and has an annual turnover of £70 million. Members are involved in environmental issues of all types and at all levels, from the local community through to the global environment.
In the consultation we were asked to comment on the Assembly’s role in relation to European matters, and to make recommendations on how to improve its scrutiny of European policy and engagement with EU issues. Our comments are based on an analysis of the recommendations made in the 2002 inquiry into the approach of the Northern Ireland Assembly and devolved Government on European Union issues, which was conducted by the then Committee of the Centre. The report called for greater openness and transparency on EU matters. We believe that much remains to be done on that, as getting clear information and advice on the procedures and mechanisms for local transposition of EU legislation remains difficult. That is particularly the case for those operating outside Government.
The 2002 report recommended that the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister keep its database and current EU directives up to date, and that that database be shared with the relevant Assembly Committees. Although NIEL is unsure of the degree to which that recommendation has been fulfilled, that information is not readily available to the non-governmental organisation sector. In the spirit of openness and transparency, we believe that it should be.
The need for a greater engagement beyond Government circles is supported by recommendation 9 of that 2002 report, which suggests that:
“structures should be put into place to make use of all available expertise and networks including those outside the Departments.”
Given that the success of any policy will ultimately be determined by the level of support that it receives, NIEL believes that a cross-sectoral partnership approach to policy design and implementation is essential.
We suggest that recommendation 13 of the 2002 report be enacted immediately. That recommendation said that:
“OFMDFM establishes a central resource which not only collates all the available EU affairs information but helps explain the context, the implications and the opportunities or threats. The establishment of a web based portal should be investigated as a method of sharing this information with non government organisations and local government.”
It is NIEL’s belief that in the absence of that information and the appropriate structures, the NGO sector will find it difficult to effectively engage on EU issues.
The consultation asked us to consider the Executive’s response to the Barroso task force. NIEL feels that the task force report fails to grasp the truly mutual relationship between sustainability and economic growth. The Executive must ensure that environmental sustainability and enhancement is addressed and that the development of a green, low-carbon economy is made a priority. As was mentioned in the last evidence session, that is one of the areas that could provide great opportunities and economic growth for Northern Ireland.
The task force report refers to the Northern Ireland sustainable development strategy, which was adopted in 2006. However, since the task fore report was issued, the Executive have decided to replace the sustainable development strategy.
NIEL believes that the new strategy should be published and implemented as a matter of urgency, and that it should provide the template against which all actions suggested in the taskforce report are implemented. A reinvigorated Sustainable Sevelopment Stakeholder Forum and the Sustainable Development Commission should be involved in developing the action plan.
You asked us to consider the European policy issues that fall within the Committee’s remit. During the suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly, and following widespread consultation, OFMDFM published ‘Taking our place in Europe - Northern Ireland’s European Strategy 2006-2010.’ That document mapped out a framework for Northern Ireland’s engagement with Europe. The strategy was also designed to guide the work of regional and local government, and set out what needed to be done in partnership with civil society, including the NGO sector.
The strategy recognised the environment as an EU policy priority area for Northern Ireland and stated the need to protect and sustain Northern Ireland’s environment. The EU’s current environmental action programme prioritises climate change, nature and biodiversity, health and quality of life and natural resources and waste. NIEL recommends that the Committee update and implement the strategy and has those priorities in its action areas.
To conclude, NIEL believes that the Assembly must take a dual approach on European issues. First, it should ensure that Northern Ireland works proactively to influence future EU policies and legislation that will have a local impact. Secondly, the Assembly should encourage all relevant Departments to develop a partnership approach with local NGOs to ensure the successful design and implementation of European policy at a local level. NIEL is keen to play its part in a cross-sectoral partnership approach to European policy design and implementation in Northern Ireland. However, we believe that OFMDFM and this Committee should lead that process.
Thank you very much for your presentation, Seamus. Does NIEL have any sister organisations that network on European issues and can identify issues that are coming down the European track? How can that be exploited or built on to enhance Northern Ireland’s input into Europe?
Mr S Gallagher:
Northern Ireland Environment Link has sister organisations in England, Scotland and Wales, and is part of a linked group that we call Joint Links. However, Joint Links does not have a presence in Europe, but several of NIEL’s members do. Some of the bigger organisations that are members of the link movement, such as the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the Wildlife Trust, are part of a movement in Europe and they are part of the green organisations in Brussels.
NIEL’s due process involves improving our connections with those organisations so that we can front load information that is coming to us on European issues. It is a two-pronged exercise; we must get Government to increase their role, but the NGO sector in Northern Ireland must reach out further to establish links. That is what we are doing.
In your written submission, you outline the need for a clear information flow to NIEL on procedures and mechanisms so that you can make early interventions. Are you saying that the way to address the situation is to locate centrally the resources that you have asked for in OFMDFM? Is that your way of improving the current difficulties that you are having? You have said that there must be a dual approach; that although OFMDFM and the other Department have to be proactive, there must be a partnership approach. Will the recommendations that you have made improve the situation?
Mr Sean Kelly (Northern Ireland Environment Link):
One of the issues is that we are trying to find out what is happening in relation to European legislation. The previous report recommended the establishment of a web-based portal, and I presume that it was intended that such a portal would be based in the European policy co-ordination unit of OFMDFM. That portal would help us to determine what was coming down the line and would allow NGOs and other sectors to feed into consultations on how European legislation is created and implemented in Northern Ireland.
Was that recommendation ever implemented?
Mr S Kelly:
Not as far as I am aware. We could not find any relevant information on the OFMDFM website.
Mr S Gallagher:
Some of those issues may have been addressed inside Government. We are aware of one or two papers that have been circulated that highlighted the stage that Departments are at with aspects of European legislation for which they have been given responsibility. However, it is difficult for someone on the outside. We organised a conference on European matters in early December 2008, and it was difficult to find out what stage the Department was at with upcoming legislation in Northern Ireland. It was very difficult for us to find out what infraction procedures had been initiated against the Department. That should not be that difficult. It is a matter of concern to a large number of organisations, and they should have access to that information.
Mr S Kelly:
At that event in December 2008, we wanted to help the sector and anyone who was interested to understand how policy making works in Europe, how that can be influenced in Brussels and how it is implemented and influenced here. As Seamus said, it was difficult to find people who were prepared to talk to us on that issue. We want that to be addressed.
When the MEPs were at the Committee, did they refer to a programme of action and did they have a schedule of what was coming down the track, including time frames? It would be useful to share that kind of information so that MLAs know where that was located and that we could access it.
Mr S Gallagher:
It is possible to find out what is coming out of Europe. However, it is difficult to find out what role Northern Ireland is playing in that, whether that is to deal directly with Whitehall or to have a regional-specific response to it, and to find out what Europe is doing and what negotiating stance it is taking. All of that is useful, and all of that would benefit from involving NGOs in the wider sector.
Mr S Kelly:
We also understand that there is not always a simple, straight line. A directive may cut across a number of Departments, and, therefore, it can be difficult to find out who is involved, what stage someone is at and whether we can feed into it. If we could have access to a co-ordination of that, it would be very useful.
I smell something burning. Does anyone else? [Laughter.]
Chair, you have shocked me. I wonder whether our two guests have brought something special from the environment. [Laughter.]
Mr S Gallagher:
We want to encourage anaerobic digestion, but we are not going that far. [Laughter.]
Thank you for your presentation, gentlemen.
The smell may be coming from the dust on the uplighters.
OK, I will believe that.
I believe that too much regulation and bureaucracy comes out of Europe. What is your opinion on that? Do you accept that the bureaucracy is over-burdensome to the wider public in Northern Ireland, particularly in business and, more predictably, in agriculture? We seem to be creating institutions from EU regulations and directives. Do you share my concerns on that?
Mr S Gallagher:
It would be remiss of us not to point out the great benefits that being in Europe has brought to Northern Ireland’s environment. Much of the legislation that comes our way —
We will disagree on that.
Mr S Gallagher:
Much of the legislation — for example, the great improvements in recycling rates and in local air quality — has come from European directives. That is a great advantage. In the previous evidence session, the funds and the expertise that can be made available from Europe were mentioned. We agree with that, and we think that that is one of the great opportunities.
If we get involved early in legislative programmes and in the funding packages, we can tailor those pieces of legislation to the requirements of Northern Ireland. We do not want to see overregulation any more than anyone else does, and we do not want farmers or other businesses burdened with more than they have to be, but we want to see good environmental outcomes. We believe that by accessing the information early and letting people know about what is coming up at an early stage, that burden can be minimised.
Do you believe that some of those regulations and directives are gold-plated when they progress from the European Union to the United Kingdom, and on to the regional Northern Ireland Assembly?
Mr S Kelly:
I am not sure whether they are gold-plated, but there is no doubt that Northern Ireland is a small part of the European Union, and that it is on the periphery of much of the major decision-making. The best that we can do is to utilise what resources we have there — whether that be civil servants or elected representatives in Brussels — and attempt to form whatever partnerships we can with other like-minded organisations in an attempt to punch above our weight. Otherwise what happens is that we just have to receive what gets handed down; and often when it gets handed down here in Northern Ireland, it can be too late in the day to —
I will put the question slightly differently. If you do not know whether they are gold-plated, do you believe that they are implemented differently in Northern Ireland than they are in other parts of Europe — and by our neighbours in the Republic of Ireland?
Mr S Gallagher:
You will find that there is a degree of interpretation in most European policy; even more so now because of the way that they are designing policy in Europe. One could probably bring forward examples where you thought there would be a degree of gold-plating, and I am not saying that I would necessarily agree with that opinion. However, there have also been other examples where Northern Ireland has been called into question in the level of implementation that it has enacted, and whether it has been enough. There are examples of both.
Thank you. It is a worrying sign that more water is being passed out. Presumably that is to put out the fire. [Laughter.]
I thank the witnesses for their presentation. Unfortunately, Mr Elliott has already asked some of my questions.
Some of us would place question marks over the strategies employed by your sister organisations, and how effective those strategies are in getting us out of the credit crunch. Indeed, those strategies could be more restrictive in how they pursue cases. In what ways do you see your organisation as being reflective of public opinion in the North, and how does that reflect us in Europe?
Mr S Gallagher:
As I have said, Northern Ireland Environment Link is made up of 55 full member organisations, with their own constituencies and membership. We also have associate members from the business community and other sectors.
Within the 55 full member organisations, there are approximately 90,000 members. Those individual members do not necessarily subscribe to everything that we say, but they do share our concerns over environmental issues in Northern Ireland. Therefore, we do believe that we do have a legitimacy to speak on those issues. We cannot delineate how everybody feels on everything we say apart from those members who have signed up to what we say on an individual basis.
Mr S Kelly:
In relation to the response to this particular consultation, we have obtained the views of our members and we must reflect what the consensus is within our 55 members. That consensus is what we are representing here today.
Does your organisation deal with any other issues apart from the environment? Does it consider some of the gold-plated legislation that comes from Europe in areas such as business, the community and planning? I have heard some of your views on planning, and those views would not reflect the views of this Assembly.
To be fair, we are not here to cross-examine the Northern Ireland Environment Link —
Why not, just while they are here? [Laughter.]
I believe it is perfectly correct to do so. If witnesses appear before this Committee and make representations of their views on European legislation, it is quite in order to put those views on record and ascertain how reflective those views are in the North.
Mr S Gallagher:
I am happy to try to answer the question at least. The Committee may be interested in inviting us back at some time in the future to discuss wider issues. We are about to publish a document that outlines our priorities, and what we think the Assembly should be working on in relation to environmental issues this year. We would gratefully accept an invitation to revisit the Committee to discuss those views.
That may be a role for the Environment Committee —
Mr S Gallagher:
We see it as a role for everyone. [Laughter.]
I think that your question is whether we think about wider issues than solely environmental ones. We do. We see a great correlation between environmental issues, economic issues and social issues, and we try to place what we say in a framework of sustainable development. Some people may disagree with some of the conclusions that we come to, but we always try to work according to those principles.
I am sorry, gentlemen, that I was not present for your presentation, but I read the background information. There was a lunch organised by the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure that we had to attend.
That is too much information.
I am conscious of the fact that, sometimes, environmental issues are taken forward that may not have the backing of everyone. I think that your reply to another question, Sean, was that you are always keen to take everyone’s view on board; that is good news. If that is true, hopefully, the answer to my question will be positive.
Do you have any detailed contact with the Irish Fish Producers’ Organisation, the Anglo North Fish Producers’ Organisation, or the Northern Ireland Trawlermen’s Trading Company? Those are the three organisations that represent the fishing industry. There is clearly a difference of opinion in relation to how things are taken forward. When there is an issue regarding cutbacks on fishing quotas or on days-at-sea allowances, and so on, we find that the scientists line up on one side, and the fishing industry on the other side, and never the twain shall meet. There is no meeting of minds.
I am keen to get your opinion on contact with those organisations; does your organisation have contact with them? If so, what has been the outcome of that contact? Although I respect the views and opinions of scientists, sometimes they need to be made aware of the realities and the practical issues facing fishing organisations on the ground — or, in this case, on the sea.
Mr S Gallagher:
I will not speak specifically about fishing quotas. That is not what we are here to do. However, on the issue of developing relationships outside of our own sector, that is something that we try to do. I am not sure which fishing organisation that they represent, but both Alan McCulla and Dick James have attended events that we have hosted. In fact one of those events was held in the Long Gallery, involving the EEC office in Belfast. We do try to work together, and to find areas in which we agree with different groups. It is not always possible to find mutual ground, but where there is, we try to accentuate those positives.
Mr S Kelly:
In any of our events, whatever the subject may be, we try to include others, not only the environmental NGOs. We try to involve other organisations, such as the Ulster Farmers’ Union or the Federation of Small Businesses, because we try to achieve as much consensus as possible on the positive aspects, and to accentuate those positive aspects, and the areas in which we can work together. That is not to suggest that we agree with all different sectors on all issues. Of course we do not.
I welcome the fact that you have had contact with Alan McCulla and Dick James, who represent two of those organisations. That is good news; they are two learned and experienced gentlemen, and I feel that their words are full of wisdom and understanding. I am sure that there are receptive ears in your organisation.
I sense that we have strayed a little off topic. Thank you for your presentation and for your answers to questions. If there is any additional information that you wish to provide, we will be very happy to receive it. It may well be that we will wish to seek clarification on other issues, and if so, we will contact you. Thank you for your attendance.