A “root and branch review” of the entire forestry policy is needed, outside of the current bill designed to clear the licence backlog, according to Labour agriculture spokesperson Sean Sherlock.

Commenting at the opening debate on the forestry bill, deputy Sherlock said: “The Labour Party is not convinced that this bill alone is the answer or the panacea to the problems that exist within the forestry sector at present.

“We need to have these issues rectified if we are serious about ensuring a seamless, fit-for-purpose forestry sector that recognises the challenges of afforestation and increasing beyond 11% the rate of cover.

We must also recognise that the process of applying for licences is clearly not fit for purpose and we need to investigate further after this legislation is passed, and presumably it will, why the process is not working.

“We are all aware, across the party divide, that it is not fit for purpose currently.”

The Cork TD said: “We are told that additional staff are being appointed within the forestry service but we do not have a clear number of staff and the type of staff that are being appointed.

“Much of the work could be done internally on the licence screening process, with regard to triage of applications, and in the assessment of the ecological or environmental impact elements, without diminishing the right of anybody to appeal.”

Calling for “certainty” with the legislation, deputy Sherlock said:

“If the Minister of State is of a mind to instigate a fee – and it seems from her speech that she is absolutely clear on the need for a fee – we cannot have a situation where ordinary people are locked out of a process.

Ordinary people cannot be locked out of the process by dint of the fact that there is a fee put in their way that arguably diminishes their right to make a genuine submission to an appeal.

“I ask the minister to revisit that issue,” he said.

“If we are to agree a position on the workings of the forestry service, we must have an opportunity to have a hearing or some public articulation and give further voice, after this legislation is passed, to how we feel the forestry service needs to operate.

“We must hear from independents and others within the sector as to how they feel the forestry service should operate.

“I also wish to give voice to the frustration of people, some of whom will also have contacted the minister of state.

I know of one forestry application that was 823 days in the system with no decision.  I have learned of other applications that were 681 days, 713 days and 520 days in the system with no decision.

“It is unconscionable for any modern public or civil service to take that long to process an application or an appeal.

“The Labour Party is generally supportive of the bill but there must be a root and branch review of how the forestry service operates when all of this is over. That needs to happen as soon as possible,” the TD concluded.