Wednesday, 4 July 2018
Heritage Bill 2016: Report Stage (Resumed) and Final Stage
A woman I knew was knocked down and killed on a road and it was never ascertained whether the driver who struck her, who did not come from a pub but who left the scene, had been drinking. He did not come forward. That incident inspired me to fixate on every aspect of the issue of road safety. Amendment No. 27 would contribute to road safety. Rather than giving carte blancheto landowners as the Minister and Fianna Fáil suggest, the amendment proposes being very forensic and specific by making reference to section 70(2)(b) and (9) of the Roads Act 1993 such that a person authorised or instructed by the council to cut back a hedge in a situation where there is a safety hazard would be compelled to so, which may take place at any time of year and that the local authority, should it consider that the person may not do so, retains its traditional ability to cut back the hedge to ensure road safety.
No one should question in any way the interest of Members on this side of the House in road safety and their willingness to address that.
Another protection we want to ensure is protection of nature, which we believe is important for the reasons Deputy Boyd Barrett outlined. We are part of an ecological system and when we narrow that system, it brings risks, consequences and knock-on effects that sometimes take a long time to see and are not easy to correlate but are very real. The protection of many bird and bee species is not an insignificant issue.
The Minister's attack in the debate last night on Birdwatch Ireland was incredible and inexcusable. Birdwatch Ireland is a very large reputable organisation that is part of an international organisation. Fifteen thousand people in this country dedicate a lot of their time on a voluntary basis to this cause and to disparage and discredit them in the way the Minister did it last night was wrong. I do not know whether the words she used came from the Department. If they did, there is a real question for the public service to answer in its attitude and approach to the passing of this legislation. If they were the Minister's words, I ask her to withdraw the comments and apologise to perfectly decent and good people who are asking that science would apply in the application of this legislation. On Committee Stage, the Minister changed the percentage in terms of the effect of what was happening in every second sentence. If we are talking about scientific accuracy, fairness and rigour we should start here in the Dáil.
We should scrap this entire Bill and do the scientific analysis that is called upon to understand exactly what is happening in our natural world. Part of the problem is that we do not know what is going on because we do not do enough monitoring. We do not know enough about what is happening with our breeding birds and when they are breeding. The best scientific analysis we have indicates that this provision threatens the yellowhammer, one of the birds on the red list which is threatened with extinction.
There are many different avenues we could take in promoting our amendments. The Minister was satisfied yesterday that we had gone through a consultation process yet the vast majority of the responses in that process had raised serious concern about the threat to wildlife in the provisions for change being advanced. In terms of that consultation process, I have a letter from the head of environmental assessment in the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, to the National Parks and Wildlife Service. When asked to consider the approach that should be taken, it stated: "[...] any changes are to be considered that they be based on scientific evidence as to their relative merits as biodiversity protection and enhancement measures and as general environmental protection measures." The EPA further states: "If insufficient evidence is available at this point in time and if there is a need for further research and study of the existing controls then it would be more prudent to leave the controls as they are until such research is completed."
I listened intently on Committee Stage to the reason we were doing this and the only accurate answer I could measure was that it would be handy for contractors. That is not scientific evidence that justifies what will be open season on hedgerow cutting in August. I see no other reason. In discussions with Fianna Fáil on this it seems the only reason it will not vote against the Government is because it believes the local authorities would not respond quickly enough. If that is the concern, that behoves us to resource the local authorities and the National Parks and Wildlife Service and to take road safety and environmental protection seriously and not throw our hands up in the air and say that in respect of environmental laws, no one believes in them, no one applies them in Ireland and we can never get local authorities to answer a telephone call. If that is the reason this Bill is going through the House, that is not good enough.
I beseech Fianna Fáil Members, for their own health of mind, to consider amendment No. 27, which is all about road protection and doing the right thing in terms of road safety but doing that through our local authorities. If they are not to be trusted we should up their game and give them the resources they need to get this right.
Every Member knows that once the word goes out from here that the hedgerows can now be cut in August, that will be done wholesale. No one will be prosecuted and what is advanced in terms of science and environmental protection will go out the window because people will say that is the new rule. That would be a tragic loss.