Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 11 February 2014
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine
Forestry Bill 2013: Society of Irish Foresters
We will now have a discussion on the Forestry Bill. I welcome from the Society of Irish Foresters, Mr. Pacelli Breathnach, president, and Dr. Gerhardt Gallagher and Mr. Joe O'Carroll, members. I thank them for coming before the committee to discuss their concerns regarding the Forestry Bill.
Some of the witnesses have been before the committee previously but I remind the witnesses regarding privilege. Witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they give to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against a person or an entity, either by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I invite Mr. Breathnach to make his opening statement.
Mr. Pacelli Breathnach:
The Society of Irish Foresters would like to thank the members for their invitation to make a submission on the Forestry Bill 2013 and for meeting with us today.
By way of background, the Society of Irish Foresters was founded in 1942 to advance and spread the knowledge of forestry in all its aspects. The society represents the interests of more than 700 members, predominantly professional foresters but including, through its associate and student membership, a wide cross-section of people involved in or with an interest in the forest and timber industry. Members of the society work across all areas of the forest industry – State sector, semi-State sector, private forestry companies, forestry consultants, forestry contracting, nurseries, the timber processing sector and investment companies.
The Society of Irish Foresters places great emphasis on promoting professional standards in forestry among its members and the regulation of the forestry profession. To this end, members of the Society of Irish Foresters are bound by its code of ethics and professional conduct. The society also influences forestry education in Ireland with a view to maintaining the highest professional standards. A system of continuous professional development is maintained for its professional members.
The society was very pleased with the response of the committee to its submission on Coillte's harvesting rights.
The Forestry Bill should support the implementation of the strategic actions arising from the Irish forest policy review process, which is currently at draft phase for public consultation. In that context, the Bill may be somewhat premature as it is unknown what changes, if any, will be made to the draft. Nevertheless, one has to assume that an expansion of the forest resource area will continue.
The society notes a number of omissions from the Bill which it believes should be included, the first of which is research. One should assume that good forestry practice and the protection of the environment is grounded on contemporary research in forestry and related matters. Furthermore, the industry is facing challenges such as diseases like chalara and phytophthora, impact from climate change, etc.
This is a notable omission from section 5 of the Bill. Our written submission includes wording for sections 5 and 28 and we urge the committee to include our research in the relevant sections. The society has published a position paper on research, a copy of which we will provide for the committee.
The Bill does not appear to refer to any power of the Minister to propose or review policies. This should be included in Part 2, section 5, which sets out the general functions of the Minister. The Bill should also require the Minister to prepare and publish annual reports on the Department’s activities. Our written submission sets out some of the areas an annual report should cover such as data on afforestation and other schemes, supports to the industry and progress on meeting the strategic objective of reaching a critical mass of sustainable timber supply.
The 1996 strategic plan for the development of the forestry sector envisioned that 17% of the land area would be afforested by 2030. However, between 1996 and 2012, only 53% of the planting target had been achieved, with a cumulative shortfall of 143,952 ha. The draft review states the afforestation target will be 10,000 ha per annum up to 2015 and 15,000 ha per annum thereafter up to 2046 when the level of forest cover would be 18%. This is 16 years later than planned in 1996. Given the failure to achieve planting targets up to the present, the society recommends that the Bill state: "The Minister shall set and review annual planting targets until such time as the critical mass of sustainable roundwood timber supply is achieved". This could be included in section 5. To achieve the new planting targets, it is essential that barriers to afforestation be removed. The Bill should be an enabler to achieving the planting targets. However, it is the view of the society that key elements of it are, in fact, inhibitors to the achievement of the planting targets. Confidence is a key element in encouraging people to make a long-term investment in planting.
Full details have been set out in our written submission on the following points which I will summarise. The proposed powers of the Minister to revoke or amend licences or approvals as proposed under section 7 and to reject, revoke or add conditions to management plans at any time will become a major inhibitor. Essentially, this hands over decision making on property to the Minister without taking into account the management objectives of the owner. An investment could be rendered useless or severely restricted without compensation. The proposal for fees appears to run contrary to the explanatory memorandum's claim that the Bill will not result in significant cost to the Exchequer or business. Potential forest owners fear that fees will only move in one direction - upwards.
The society recommends linking management plans with felling licences. A management plan for a forest is best practice and the society would support the production of such plans. Given the very low area average in the private sector, a minimum size requirement or a simplified plan should apply. The key is that forest management plans would be prepared. The management plans should also be prepared to meet the objectives and principles of sustainable forest management. The acceptance of a management plan should trigger a felling licence for the duration of the crop up to clear felling. Notification of the commencement of operations to the Minister should be sufficient to allow him to exercise his regulatory function. A separate felling licence should be required for clear felling. This would greatly reduce the administrative burden on the Minister. The power of the Minister to register a burden of a licence or replanting order on a property’s folio and later to remove such a burden when he is satisfied that the conditions of the order or licence have been met is excessive, potentially expensive and unnecessary. Conveyancing solicitors should pick up on these obligations during their normal work.
While the society has an open mind on the replanting requirement and would be wary of proposals that would result in deforestation, the power of the Minister to specify in detail the replanting requirements is, in its own right, excessive, as it does not take account of the owners' objectives and will increase the administrative burden. The Minister may wish to retain an input in some particularly sensitive areas. If so, this exceptional circumstance should be reflected in the Bill and follow consultation with the forest owner.
Several of the timescales set out in the Bill are unrealistic. For example, it may not be possible to supply the information sought in section 13 within 28 days. A period of 12 weeks would be more realistic. In the Bill deadlines apply to industry players only and none applies to the Minister. Timeframes should also be set for the Minister in the performance of his duties and, in default, compensation or other remedies should be stated because a failure to act promptly may cause a loss to the forest owner.
Section 32 has the potential to cause further uncertainty. This relates to the setting aside of the Statute of Limitations and allowing proceedings for recovery to be instituted within 20 years. Work can be done in good faith; similarly, grant claims, approvals after inspections and payments can made in good faith. However, up to 20 years later proceedings can be instituted to recoup the money paid because, for example, of some update in technology. Work completed to the required standard and measurements consistent with the available technology should be signed off on as meeting the standard without a further claw-back in the event that there are technological improvements.
The Bill gives authorised officers inordinate powers of entry to land and premises, other than a dwelling house. The approach is what one would expect in a criminal investigation. The overall approach to penalties is quite draconian, with class A penalties throughout.
The society welcomes the appointment of committees. Members have been pleased to have worked on various committees during the years and given service from a sense of commitment rather than remuneration. However, the society is dismayed by the tone of section 9 on the prohibition on unauthorised disclosure of confidential information.
There are a number of other topics which are outside the scope of the Bill but which are no less important and might be considered in this context. On land availability and land use policy, numerous constraints are placed on the expansion of the forest estate because of the classification of and competing demands on land against the background of a scarce and finite resource. Food Harvest 2020 may put further pressure on land that might otherwise be used for forestry, together with alternative schemes such as the REPS. Income from forestry was previously tax exempt. However, the change to the tax laws whereby forest income is taxed as income in the year in which it is realised without any reference to the growing period required to produce that income has potential to derail the planting programme. Confidence in the sector is also impacted on by changes in grant and premium rates. Given the long-term nature of forestry, confidence in the long-term commitment of funding is equally important.
As an Opposition spokesperson who intends to table amendments to the Bill, I am listening carefully to submissions and keeping all of the documents presented to us. When I have received all of the submissions, I will examine them and consider amendments they may suggest. Some of the amendments will be contradictory and I will have to decide which ones are worth pursuing, either to extract information from the Minister or because I believe the Bill should be changed.
Mr. Breathnach made a number of interesting suggestions. In regard to the policy review and annual report, it appears that the Minister does not need further powers to propose or review policies because the core function of a Minister is to set out policies. We will be told that the suggested amendment is superfluous to the Bill. Every Department is obliged to prepare annual reports and strategy statements. Mr. Breathnach's suggestion that they do not provide sufficient detail may be valid.
I will have to think long and hard about the proposal on planting targets. This is legislation, as opposed to a plan. If legislation is to be tight enough to be enforceable, it could also be so tight that it creates legislative difficulties.
My belief is that taking Coillte Teoranta out of new planting in the past ten years was the biggest cause of the reduction in planting. It had all of the capability to do this job efficiently and effectively. It had a large forest holding, the know-how and the financial ability to do the job. It takes a long-term investment. There has been ideological opposition to the State investing in anything in the past ten or 15 years. If that had existed in previous generations, many of our very good semi-State companies and State companies would not have existed.
We all agree about the amendment of the plans. I will follow up on that point. The witnesses are correct about fees, which only ever go up. The other point made is that there is no significant cost to the Exchequer. One must always watch the small print in respect of Government documentation. Charging fees to cover the cost means there is an appropriation-in-aid in the Department fund and one does not need to get the money from the Exchequer. It did not refer to there not being a significant cost but that there was not a significant cost to the Exchequer. There is a subtle difference between the two. I expect that is where fees come in. We will watch this.
We have gone mad with plans. Plans are getting more and more detailed. They are filling up rooms and we are knocking down trees to beat the band to print out all the plans. I often wonder whether anyone reads plans. People prepare a plan because the law says there must be a plan. There must be a pro formaplan and the details and facts but the writer and the person for whom the plan is intended pay no heed to it in the reality of business. How much money, time and effort has been wasted in this? I see this in respect of REPS. Everything has just become paper, paper, paper.
In the Department, we used to spend hours, days and months on the strategic statement of the Department. I asked officials in the Department how many kept the strategic statement of the Department on their desks as an everyday tool or used it to answer awkward questions about what the Department does. Other than that, some 95% of those in the Department never referred to it again. It was handy for answering questions but they did not use it for day-to-day management. If we used the time spent writing the document managing the Department in a proactive fashion, perhaps we would have been better off. I am not against planning but I am against pro formaplanning. Much of it is done to satisfy a legal requirement, not because the planner believed this information was needed for a strategic plan. Many plans have more detail than commercial planners would include. I would be interested to hear the view of Senator Mary Ann O'Brien, as someone who is involved in a significant commercial operation.
I agree with the point about the registration of a burden on the folio. Replanting is a big issue and needs input.
I like what the witnesses said about timescales. The public are often tied to timescales. Appealing a decision of the Department of Social Protection must be done within 28 days and something else takes 14 days. However, there is no timescale coming back except in planning. Where there is an eight week limit to provide an answer, it works very well and effectively. I am not giving hostages to fortune by saying that if there are timeframes in one direction, I will demand they apply in the opposite direction. Otherwise, there will be no timeframes.
We have already met the Department in respect of the Statute of Limitations. This is a valuable point. I have come across situations where genuine cases have been passed by the Department and eight years later they say that they measured incorrectly and come back looking for the money. No banks will bank if they think that this could happen. It is an important point. Unless there was a purposeful effort to defraud, there should be no retrospective claim. If the Department passes the application for a grant, it should have checked it. Maps may be wrong. Ecological areas can be re-examined in the case of people who acted in good faith and it totally undermines bank confidence in the business. I note what was said about enforcement.
Regarding land availability, I had a connection many years ago with the timber industry. The area I live in is hugely dependent on the timber industry for employment. However, there is a competing use of land issue and much marginal land is ruled out because it is ecologically important. We are moving into better and better land, which gives much better yield when planted. There is competition with agriculture. I have a huge interest in the timber industry and the timber mill in Corr na Móna needs 350,000 tonnes of timber a year. The big five timber mills have been extraordinarily resilient in bad times. Having said that, the dilemma is that every hectare in timber is a hectare out of agriculture. The Chairman has been particularly exercised about the land use issue and he is dead right. We have a big job to do on land use to decide on the competing interests for Ireland. They are not making land any more and, over the past month, much of what we had has become aquaculture rather than agriculture territory. The issue needs the examination proposed by the Chairman.
The witnesses' theme is valid, namely, that anything that creates uncertainty, such as retrospection in penalties or changes in grants, undermines confidence and we cannot expect people to plan, particularly if they are borrowing money, if there are too many uncertainties or variables in the equation. People will not be prepared to fund it. We must examine this point in the context of the wider debate on forestry if not in respect of the Bill.
I thank Mr. Breathnach for his presentation. We have had a number of presentations about the Bill. Along with my team, I will study all of them and examine the proposed legislation. Where we believe we can improve it, we will table amendments. The witnesses' points are of help in formulating how to address this. The witnesses suggest providing that the Minister shall set and review annual planting targets until such time as the critical mass of sustainable roundwood timber supply is achieved. I fully agree with the point. We must have targets and they must be in a legislative framework so that people comply with them. The Minister should review them so that they are met. The other aspect concerns the management plans for felling licences. The witnesses make the point that a management plan is best practice and the society supports the production of such plans. There is merit in what the witnesses say and I look at it positively.
The witnesses and Deputy Ó Cuív referred to deadlines of 28 days in a 12 week period. That should be applicable from the Minister's side as well as from the side of the person involved in forestry.
I assume that the changes in the grant and premium payments have been brought to the attention of every Deputy. It undermines confidence in the sector. People need certainty, part of which is ensuring an income.
I concur with the enforcement side of it. In the past the enforcement was like a criminal investigation, as the witness said. That is the wrong way to go about it. Inspections are necessary but they should be done in consultation with the forestry owner. Being heavy handed sends the wrong message. I will take all the witnesses’ suggestions on board, along with other suggestions and ideas put forward in earlier presentations, and bring them to the team that works with me to see what amendments we need to table. We need to get this right. I thank the society for its presentation. We will give it our full attention.
I know very little about this area, apart from the knowledge I have gained through being on this committee for the past couple of years. It was envisaged that this Bill would make things easier for people who are in, or want to go into, this business. Deputy Ó Cuív is right to say that I have a business but I fail to see what role legislation plays in telling me that I must have a type of management plan to run my business. We all know that one either fails to plan or plans to fail.
According to the explanatory memorandum the Bill tries to reduce the walls of bureaucracy and red tape so that people can run the business. What is the witnesses’ view of that point and where would they like to see it go?
What is happening to the climate? Forestry is a vital piece of the carbon jigsaw and we have not reached our targets. We were supposed to plant 15,000 trees but have planted only 7,000. One Deputy mentioned aqua-land as opposed to agri-land. My father’s place, which is on the side of the River Suir, is half forestry, half farm and is spectacularly badly flooded, to the point that one wonders whether the trees will survive but they survive beautifully. Maybe this could provide an answer for land now affected by flooding for the first time. This will be part of our business in the future.
Are we competitive with Food Harvest 2020? The forestry sector has its own targets. Does it make better business sense for a farmer to move into beef and away from forestry? Is that a quicker buck? Is the Minister off balance? I thank the witnesses for their presentation.
Like Senator O'Brien I am not an expert in this matter but I am taking on board all the views we have heard over the past few weeks. What consultation has the Society of Irish Foresters had on the Bill with any of the stakeholders or the Minister? Are we in Cloud Cuckoo Land when we talk about increasing planting by 18%? Does that conflict with Food Harvest 2020 under which there are plans to increase milk, beef and tillage production? How will we be able to increase planting when land availability becomes a problem? It will become more and more scarce because dairy or tillage will be seen to be more fashionable than forestry. How can farmers be encouraged to make their land available for forestry as opposed to tillage or other enterprise?
The witnesses said at the outset that because the forestry policy review has not been completed this legislation may be somewhat premature. Do they envisage that this will necessitate an additional later Bill or does this Bill go further than initially intended, without going all the way because it cannot do so? It was intended to streamline the felling and application process and has become more comprehensive. That is my impression. When the forestry policy review process is over and policy flows from it, more legislation may be necessary to reflect and implement that. What is the witnesses’ opinion?
Mr. Pacelli Breathnach:
I thank the Chairman. I am not sure how I and my colleagues will divide up all the questions.
I understand there was consultation on the Bill six or seven years ago. The society has not been involved since then. When the Bill was published we wrote to the Minister and we met the Department officials last October or November. That was the start of our input into it. Until then we had had no input for six or seven years.
Dr. Gerhardt Gallagher:
Some of the thinking on the Bill goes back to that time. Much has changed since then. The Bill is restrictive rather than enabling. It is full of rules, regulations and strictures whereas the Minister should give a broad enabling brief. That is why we suggested as part of his policy that he should be able to review and comment on policy. He will need help to make the policy. It should be there in the Bill rather than arise out of a strategic study taking place separate from the Bill. Is the Minister’s name on the strategic study? It seems unclear.
With regard to a brief on targets and achieving same, obviously one would not expect figures to be put into the Bill but the Minister should have some input. We have not had a report that specifically deals with forestry because since the 1990s the issue has been part of the wider departmental report. Up to the point that Coillte was established the forestry service used to produce a detailed annual report on the forestry situation at the end of each year. For example, it stated how much was planted, how much was felled and issues like that plus what was happening on the disease front. Now it seems to be a bit anomalous to depend on organisations such as my society, which reproduces planting figures and so on for its members, the wider public and associations such as Irish Timber Growers Association which reproduces the planting figures in its yearbook yet there is no publication containing the figures collated by the forest service.
I shall make a point about land use because it is crucial to the legislation. Land use has not been mentioned in the legislation but the Minister did state something about land targets. Again, we see some of that coming out of the strategic review and it has presented figures that look very difficult to achieve under present circumstances. If there is a doubt about the annual planting figures proposed in the review then there is a doubt about the continuing production of forests. Studies have been conducted which show that the availability of timber depends on it being produced in a forest. Of course there is a delay factor of between 20 to 40 years. Therefore, the increased planting that took place in the 1990s will produce volumes of timber. However, there is a danger posed by the collapse in the forests and thereafter so suddenly one is left with a big collapse in the supply of timber which will have an effect further down the industry chain.
Recently I was involved in the preparation of a report on the availability of land and how real the pool of land available for forestry is. It is much more restrictive than had been thought previously for two reasons. There is a huge amount of competing interests for land. Of course there will be competing interests for the better land. Certain assumptions had been made on the availability, for example, of wet grasslands. It was assumed that a very significant supply of wet grasslands would remain. On examination of the figures one discovered that there are severe restrictions on such lands in terms of what is happening in agriculture at present. For much of the land that we speculated would come into production there will be severe agricultural competition for same. Plus there are restrictions on the marginal land that can support forestry. However, there is a very slow process of approval for farmers to plant marginal land which often brings in an element of better land. That is another threat to the land supply and ultimately the timber supply. There has been no reference to the Minister having targets or reviewing targets in the Bill and to me that seems to be quite an omission.
I wish to make another point regarding my past career and the research issues. I happened to be driving along one day when I heard that quangos were going out of fashion. The first quango to be eliminated was COFORD which I think was the first quango. It struck me as being the one quango that was doing something for the country yet it was the first one to go. COFORD still exists as a subsection of the Department but its independence for instigating, funding and supervising research is gone. I believe that we need research more than ever. Two diseases, chalara and phytophthora, pose a great threat and could seriously damage standing forests. International trade takes place so we do not know what else will happen. Therefore, the first part of the Bill needs a specific reference that the Minister can undertake, or authorise to be undertaken, research into forests and forest products. Years ago what was known as the Institute of Industrial Research and Standards undertook forest products research which made a very valuable contribution but that research has disappeared over the years. Research has been mentioned once under the part devoted to the statutory instruments. However, it is not mentioned in the primary or first parts of the Bill but that is where it should be mentioned. If it were then it would allow the Minister to set up something in his own right. Teagasc exists for the agricultural sector and has a great deal of freedom to undertake and supervise research. My society feels that forestry research should be granted the same importance as Teagasc as it is a very large sector of the industry. I could go on about the matter.
Climate is part of the land supply business because the more land one devotes to forestry the more carbon can be sequestered. Grass calculations reflect carbon emissions and have an inverse effect because the more clear felling and the less planting takes place, the more carbon emissions will increase. I shall leave my comments at that, and I thank the Chairman.
Mr. Joe O'Carroll:
First, I shall address the Chairman's question on whether anything can be gained from the strategic review that needs to be factored into the Bill. It is impossible to answer his question until we see what comes out of the strategic review. However, I shall make a broad statement. It has been some time since we had a Forestry Bill. The legislation has been eight years in the making and it is six years since consultation. Therefore, my personal view is that there is no massive urgency on pushing the Bill through until we have seen the strategic review which is more imminent. Once we see it, and gain a better understanding of the vision for the industry going forward, we can then work on a Bill that will give enabling powers to the Minister to exercise and achieve that vision.
The single biggest issue and challenge facing the forestry industry at present is mobilising the private forest industry. The State and private growers have invested billions of euro into creating a forest resource. A lot of it is now mature but it is very slow to reach market.
Deputy Ó Cuív mentioned ECC in Corr na Móna and the other sawmills that are always crying out for additional volume. My own business, Imperative Energy, develops bioenergy facilities around the country and constantly faces difficulties in getting sufficient volume to support its development needs.
The potential for job creation and creating economic activity in the private forest industry must be built on to the mobilisation of the private forestry asset. That is why we need a strategic vision for the industry and a supportive Bill that will help grease the tracks to get that material to market and then economic and social benefits can flow from such an initiative. The Bill contains very little to grease the tracks and is more about imposing barriers and constraints on the industry.
Senator Mary Ann O'Brien and Deputy Ó Cuív mentioned the management plan. Again, the wording of the Bill very much suggests that everything will be written, that the Minister will write seeking a management plan and the forest owners will be obliged to submit a management plan.
We are in the digital age and have a very modern forest industry. It is nonsense in this day and age for anybody to put pen to paper, as Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív said. What we need is access to inventory information. Timber is not like an annual crop and we need to know what is growing. Most people who grow wheat do not really know what is there until it is harvested. The position in the case of forestry is slightly different in that we always need to know what is growing. All forest owners need to capture this data and they should be made available centrally to enable us to look at the sustainable harvest across the industry. We have no problem with information being made available, but it should all be in a digital format and inventory data. There is no need for verbiage. We have a number of small Irish companies, Tree Metrics being one, a former winner of an innovation award from the Society of Irish Foresters. They are shaking up the global forest industry in terms of forest measurement, stand optimisation and resource management. It is that type of technology we should be using in the forestry industry, but none of that modernisation is envisaged in the Bill, as drafted.
The other development in the forest industry not envisaged or facilitated in the Bill concerns the diverse ownership structure. There is a separation of ownership of land from ownership of the growing stock. The chances are that the growing stock will be owned by funds, or it could even be managed by Coillte or other entities, separate from the person who owns the land and the folio. None of these developments is envisaged in the Bill and they need to be taken into consideration. In summary, we are putting the cart before the horse. We need to know what the vision is and need a Bill that will enable us to achieve that vision.
The general trend is along that line of thought. The issues raised by all of the delegates have a common thread running through them, with slightly different perspectives, particularly on the management plan which should include the felling licence. Others have stated there should also be an indication of replanting intentions before the clear felling licence is granted. From the point of view of efficiencies within the process, apart from the timelines involved, if the objectives are achieved, whereby there are extra forest plantations, the current administrative structure is already under pressure. On limiting it to five year licences and making all of the other demands on the system, the only aspect in respect of which there is a deadline concerns the supply of information within 28 days. Some of us met the officials and suggested a period of 90 days; the delegates have suggested 12 weeks, which is more or less the same. There are many common threads running through the submissions of the various interest groups in the sector which I hope have been fed to the departmental officials and the Minister. We have found the officials receptive to the submissions made so far. The Minister is due to appear before the committee on 25 February to take Committee Stage and the points made have been well noted. One of the fundamental issues in the forest industry is that one cannot grow trees without foresters. For that reason, we were keen to have the Society of Irish Foresters which represents qualified foresters to appear before the committee to get its perspective on the issues involved.
This has been a useful meeting. As this is a public meeting the issues discussed will feed into the debate. As this is the last submission to be made at this stage, we will ask the departmental officials to read the transcripts of all the submissions and presentations made to the committee and take on board the concerns expressed. They centre on the issues of replanting and management plans and are not at odds. Only rarely have the submissions made been at great odds with each other. Much common sense has been demonstrated by many delegates and I expect much of what has been said to be taken on board. That is my request to the officials.
I thank the delegates for their attendance and making their presentation to the committee. This marks the conclusion of our hearings on the Forestry Bill 2013. We will probably discuss our own position in advance of Committee Stage on 25 February.