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In compliance with section 52 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, I wish to make a statement on the ninth meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) in environment sectoral format, which was held in Armagh on 30 October 2009. The statement has been agreed with the Minister for Social Development, Margaret Ritchie, who also attended. As Minister of the Environment, I chaired the meeting and, with Minister Ritchie, represented the Northern Ireland Executive. The Irish Government were represented by John Gormley TD, Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.
The Council agreed proposals from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) for the development and publication of a common set of environmental indicators. It is intended that publication will enable elected representatives, policymakers and others to track progress on changes to the environment in each jurisdiction. Ministers agreed that the common indicators will be published in 2011 as part of the North/South statistical profile or through appropriate reports of environmental indicators by the relevant agencies.
Ministers noted that the NIEA and the EPA are developing a joint paper on environmental research that will be brought to the next NSMC meeting in environment sectoral format. Ministers also noted that opportunities to maximise access to EU funding for environmental research, including the seventh framework programme and INTERREG, will be explored. Ministers further agreed that the environmental research information, which was available on the aNSwer website, will be made available on the NIEA and EPA websites.
The Council welcomed the continuing progress of the implementation of the EU water framework directive on shared waters and noted that the river basin management plans are due to be finalised by the end of 2009. The focus will then move from the planning phase to implementing the programme of measures that will be required in order to achieve the objectives of the directive. Co-ordinated efforts between jurisdictions towards implementing the directive will continue.
The Council noted that the North/South market development steering group is working to exploit economies of scale in the market for recycled materials in both jurisdictions. The chair of the group will make a presentation at the next Council meeting. Ministers also had an opportunity to share views on policy developments on plastic bags and chewing gum.
The Council noted that a framework agreement was endorsed by the Environment Ministers in June 2009, relating, in the first instance, to the removal of illegally dumped waste at two priority sites at Slattenagh in County Fermanagh and near Trillick in County Tyrone. That agreement will form the basis for action on the remaining 18 sites. Ministers noted that it is expected that work on the two priority sites could commence shortly after the award of contract, which is likely to be in early 2010. The NIEA will prioritise the order in which the remaining 18 sites will be dealt with, based on the risk of environmental pollution, harm to human health and other factors. Ministers welcomed the joint concerted enforcement actions that are continuing to target shipments of waste and noted that future action is planned.
The Council agreed to meet again in environment sectoral format in March 2010.
Before I call Peter Weir, I wish to correct something that I said earlier when Mrs Hanna presented the public petition. The Chairperson of the Committee for Health, Social Services and Public Safety is Mr Jim Wells, not Mr Simon Hamilton. I apologise to the House for that mistake.
I am sure that Mr Hamilton is recovering in the darkened room in which he has been lying since he was pushed over to Health.
I thank the Minister of the Environment for his statement. I note that the North/South Ministerial Council discussed the serious problem of cross-border illegal waste dumping. I appreciate that, as the Minister indicated, actions are being taken on that. Can the Minister provide any more detail on the actions that are being taken to tackle that very important problem?
The Member is right to point out that illegal cross-border dumping is a significant problem. It is largely a historical problem, and we are not receiving considerable reports that it is ongoing.
It has been established under a framework agreement that Dublin City Council is the competent Irish authority in this matter. It is responsible for procuring a contract for the excavation, examination and removal of the waste, and for the remediation of the site afterwards. That will be done in consultation with the Northern Ireland competent authority, the NIEA. My officials in the agency will oversee the removal operations on each site to help ensure that the site is protected during the works. Once those two sites are cleared, that will give us a significant amount of information to work towards having all 20 sites cleared thereafter.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the Minister’s statement. There is a lot of fly-tipping going on along the border, especially in my constituency. Was there any discussion on how our council would be reimbursed? Currently it is dealing with that problem and meeting the cost.
I am disappointed, because I thought that there was an opportunity to talk about the North/South interconnector at the meeting. Will the Minister give his commitment that the issue will be addressed at the next meeting?
The member has raised two issues. First, if there is substantiated evidence that the fly-tipping is emanating from the Republic of Ireland, that waste will be repatriated to the Republic of Ireland, which will be expected to bear the costs of disposing of that waste. Secondly, the interconnector is an energy matter. Therefore, the environment sector is not the appropriate sector to deal with that.
I welcome the Minister’s statement, especially the fact that some EU funding will be used. However, when we went there the other day, it was made very clear that, if we are to influence legislation, we need to see it two years before it starts. What steps will be taken to ensure that we know the direction and detail being taken on the legislation that we will make in the future as part of that environmental research in the EU?
That matter was not discussed at the meeting; however, the Northern Ireland Executive office is fully engaged in Brussels. It is its job to alert us to relevant legislation in its incremental stages. Each Department then has the opportunity to respond to that legislation, so a process is in place.
I do not know how well it works and do not believe that we have much influence over the European Union with our small population vis-à-vis a very large albatross of government. That is why I prefer government to be delivered locally, either through local, regional or national government, as opposed to submitting our interests to Europe.
I note that others are quite happy to turn around and not to have elections that they promised to have and to walk away from the promises they made to the electorate in June last year. That is very notable here today.
I welcome the Minister’s comprehensive statement and the fact that a lot of good work is being done. In relation to the North/South market development steering group, which is working to exploit economies of scale in the market for recycled material, does the Minister hope that we can create a truly common market for recycled materials in Ireland as a whole in the near future? The establishment of a market with sensible prices would do much to stimulate the recycling of waste here and in the Republic.
It is better to crawl before learning to walk, and, therefore, we should establish a unified market in Northern Ireland. I have put forward suggestions about the establishment of a single waste authority because that would bring clear economies of scale and marketing opportunities. We are considering the potential for the creation of a paper mill that would service Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. We must seek to utilise all potential benefits for the interests of taxpayers and ratepayers and bring as much funding as possible back to the waste process. Fortunately, markets for recycled materials have recovered to 2007 levels after taking a severe dip in 2008. However, we need to market our product better, and that will involve good separation. If we do the job right, there will be markets for many of our products.
I thank the Minister for the statement. The market development steering group features in every statement on an NSMC meeting. However, it seems that those statements are always couched in terms of reports to be presented. Is the Minister satisfied with progress in that area? Similarly, the Minister talked about the common set of environmental indicators between the Northern Ireland Environment Agency and the Environmental Protection Agency. Will the Minister give an assurance that those indicators will compare the progress, or lack thereof, that Northern Ireland is making with the progress that is being made by other UK regions?
We provide an annual fund of some £1 million to the waste and resources action programme. It works closely with businesses and supports initiatives to increase recycling and the use of recycled material. Opportunities to market materials increase as production of those materials increases.
The North/South market development steering group agreed that the market and the economic landscape have changed considerably since the inception of the project. Therefore, although proposals for the paper mill, for example, should be kept under active consideration, immediate progress is not expected because the economic climate is not right. There is no point in investing huge amounts of public money if all the professional experts are advising that it is not the right time to do that because the market will not sustain it. We will take qualitative advice in attempting to bring about the best outcomes for taxpayers and ratepayers.
I also thank the Minister for his statement, which included references to plastic bags and chewing gum. I have spoken to people in the industry in Northern Ireland, and they favour a voluntary arrangement on the use of plastic bags rather than the taxation route that has been taken in the Irish Republic. What are the Minister’s thoughts on that? I assume that the discussions on chewing gum were about how to remove it from our streets rather than coming up with a new mouth-watering flavour.
Plastic bags previously accounted for 0·6% of all the material that ends up in landfill. Plastic bags are an obvious and visible problem; they blow down our streets and become attached to hedges in the countryside. We have sought to encourage people to use fewer plastic bags or use the same bags more often. As a consequence, plastic bag usage in Northern Ireland has reduced by 38% from some 20 million a year to about 12 million a year; that is good news. Plastic bag usage in the rest of the UK is down by 48%, which is even better news for them.
We must press ahead and set higher targets to encourage and cajole more people to use reusable bags. Some people have suggested that we should use paper bags, but it has been found that paper bags are more damaging to the environment than plastic bags and that their manufacture and delivery leaves a greater carbon footprint. Plastic bags accounted for 0·6% of all landfill material before the reduction in their usage, and they now account for about 0·4%. A much bigger exercise must be carried out to reduce the amount of packaging that we see in supermarkets and shops.
I want us to focus our attention on reducing the amount of packaging, because that will have a far greater impact than introducing a plastic bag tax levy, which will probably hit the poorest in our society the hardest. That is my initial assessment.
The clean neighbourhoods Bill will assist with the problem of chewing gum to some extent. However, our public realm needs to be designed so that chewing gum can be removed. Many streets in Northern Ireland are covered with brick paviours that are laid in sand. When paviours are laid, they look dreadful within six months because they have been covered in chewing gum. If chewing gum is power-washed off the paviours, the sand is also washed out and they are disturbed. The Department for Social Development needs to look at that problem and identify how the paviours can be deep cleansed. Despite all our efforts to educate the public, I do not think that we will discourage everyone in Northern Ireland from engaging in the filthy habit of spitting out chewing gum on the streets.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I welcome the fact that the Minister has shared views on policy developments with respect to plastic bags. Unfortunately, his position remains flawed. That aside, climate change is a big issue. Does the Minister have shared views with his counterpart in the South on that issue?
I note that, although the Member indicated that my views were flawed, he did not indicate why. If he wants to hit the poorest in our society the hardest, that is a great departure from his party policy. Perhaps he should discuss with his party why he wants to introduce new taxes on the poorest and see how it responds.
I discussed climate change with my counterpart, and there are issues on which we do and do not agree. Ultimately, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland can have a very significant impact on the introduction of energy from renewable sources. We are ideally placed to provide such energy in our society and beyond. We are in general agreement that there are huge untapped opportunities for using renewable energy sources. However, there are challenges: if we use marine measures, people will be concerned about marine life and marine biology, and if we use wind farms, some of the Member’s colleagues will be strongly opposed to that. We are prepared to press ahead in that regard, and I am interested to see his party policy on renewable wind energy.
I sort of welcome the Minister’s statement this morning, but, unfortunately, I do not see much substance in the 11 small paragraphs. That is not his fault; it was because the meeting took place with a small agenda. In light of the Member across the way referring to climate change, does the Minister agree that, in the interests of reducing his carbon footprint, he should reconsider the arrangements for the meetings and relocate them to his office, as, I believe, his ministerial colleague, the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure, has done, or introduce some form of videoconferencing?
I welcome the enthused response from my colleague; he makes a very valid point, because much of the work could have been done by an exchange of papers. Perhaps the Member will raise the matter with the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister and directly with the NSMC because there is, potentially, a small industry going on. Meetings are being arranged that do not necessarily have to take place. A lot of this is common sense that could be addressed through exchange of letters.
I exchange lots of letters on many such issues with colleagues in the United Kingdom, without needing to meet them. Outstanding issues can often be resolved by telephone, which, of course, has considerably less of a carbon footprint than holding meetings attended by hordes of officials.
I thank the Minister for his statement, in which he indicated that the Northern Ireland Environment Agency and the Environmental Protection Agency in the Republic of Ireland are developing a common set of environmental indicators. Will the Minister ensure that the finalised and agreed indicators remain consistent with those that are standard throughout the United Kingdom, so that we can assess progress in protecting the Northern Ireland environment in conjunction with that made in England, Scotland and Wales?
(Mr Deputy Speaker [Mr McClarty] in the Chair)
The indicators will have to be closely akin not only to those in the rest of the United Kingdom but to those in Europe, given that many indicators are associated with EU directives. We are slightly ahead in those indicators. It has been agreed that research can be published independently, so ours may be published before the Republic of Ireland’s. For example, we are working towards a deadline of publishing our river basin management plans by 22 December. Therefore, we hope to get indicators out sooner rather than later.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a ráiteas. I thank the Minister for his statement. A few issues have been touched upon. Those of us who, like the Minister, are aware of the repercussions and ramifications of climate change will want to see a commonality of spirit and policy development. What initiatives have been taken by the Minister’s Department and by the Minister’s Department in conjunction with the likes of DETI?
The Minister has referred to renewables and the potential that they create for employment, and those of us who are deeply concerned about the economic downturn would like to see “green collar” employment prospects fully exploited. There is an overlap between the Minister’s Department, which has responsibility for climate change, DETI and other Departments on the rest of the island. If he cannot do so here today, the Minister can, if he wishes, provide me with more details later. I am interested in what measures or initiatives can be taken by his Department, which is charged with mitigating climate change. What is the potential to roll out further employment from renewables and that “green collar” sector?
My Department and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment have already done considerable work between them on developing opportunities for the green economy in recycling and renewable energies. The Minister of Enterprise and I recently visited Harland and Wolff, where a major offshore wind energy farm is under construction. The scale and opportunities of that project are extensive.
I will introduce DEL into the equation. For example, Queen’s University is doing very advanced research into wave energy that I hope to see for myself in the not-too-distant future. That has generated interest from across the Atlantic. We hope to talk to people from America who are interested in the renewable energy opportunities here in Northern Ireland. There is much work to be done and many opportunities to be created in the search to identify more sources of renewable energy and to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.
Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas a ghabháil leis an Aire as an ráiteas sin, agus tá ceist agam dó.
I welcome the reference in paragraph seven of the Minister’s statement to how the North/South market development steering group is working to exploit economies of scale in the market for recycled materials throughout the island of Ireland. Will the Minister tell us more about the steering group’s membership and work and whether its minutes are available online?
Secondly, will the Minister recommend to his DUP part-time MP colleagues that they consider reducing their carbon footprints further by abstaining from Westminster?
At least some people’s voices are heard through their elected representatives at Westminster, which has to make decisions on national security, finance, foreign affairs and a whole range of other important issues. I welcome that fact that we have nine DUP MPs at Westminster and that their attendance record, lobbying efforts and speaking records, and the number of questions that they ask, are streets ahead of the previous MPs for North Belfast, Strangford and many other constituencies. Having nine hard-working MPs at Westminster is to the benefit of Northern Ireland.
With respect to the element of the Member’s question that actually relates to the statement, I advise him that the chairperson of the North/South market development steering group is expected to make a presentation at the next NSMC meeting. Perhaps the appropriate time to fully update the Member and the House about the steering group’s work will be after that meeting.
I thank the Minister for his statement. There are concerns about co-operation on fuel laundering. Will the Minister indicate what his counterparts in the Republic of Ireland are doing in their fight to stop illegal fuel laundering and smuggling? Are they as zealous and energetic as their counterparts in Northern Ireland? In addition, will the Minister indicate whether Northern Ireland can achieve its incineration obligations under the EU landfill directive?
Fuel laundering is a significant issue that has been ongoing for a long time, and it causes huge environmental damage. However, my Department does not deal directly with fuel laundering: HM Revenue and Customs is the first port of call. When there is evidence that fuel laundering has caused environmental damage, it is up to my Department to investigate. If a cross-border problem is identified, for example, when materials that have been used to launder fuel have been dumped on either side of the border, we will work with our colleagues in the Irish Republic to identify the source of those materials and to pursue the individuals who have been involved in dumping them.
The residue from fuel laundering is hugely polluting and it has the potential to contaminate ground, surface water and land. However, given the clandestine nature of such activities, it can be very difficult to identify the individuals who are behind them. I will always encourage people to co-operate with and pass information on to the relevant authorities — the PSNI, HM Revenue and Customs and NIEA.