Tuesday, 3 December 2013
Turf Cutting Compensation Scheme
6. To ask the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht if he will review the content and conditions of contracts issued to turf cutters under the cessation scheme; the number of contracts issued and the numbers returned to date; the number under each compensation or relocation category; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [51402/13]
My question relates to the binding agreement that was issued by the Department to bog owners and turf cutters regarding the cessation of turf cutting.
The difficulty is that if people do not have a relocation site in place within the time period, the Department can provide them with an alternative, which might be just a €1,500 compensation package, without access to bog relocation.
I thank the Deputy for raising this matter this afternoon.
Under the cessation of turf cutting compensation scheme, three types of legal agreements have been and are being issued by my Department. First is a legal agreement for qualifying turf cutters who are signing up to the annual payment of €1,500, index-linked, for 15 years. Second is a relocation interim legal agreement for qualifying turf cutters who have expressed an interest in relocation, but where no relocation site is currently available for them to relocate to. This relocation interim legal agreement provides for the payment of €1,500, index-linked, or a supply of 15 tonnes of cut turf per annum, while these applicants are awaiting relocation to non-designated bogs. Third is a relocation final legal agreement. This agreement has been issued to qualifying turf cutters where a site has been assessed as suitable for relocation and is ready, or can be made ready, for use for domestic turf cutting. Turf cutters who sign and return the applicable legal agreement to my Department will also receive a once-off incentive payment of €500.
The interim legal agreement is required in the case of relocation sites because, for the majority of raised bog special areas of conservation, the relocation site and the terms and conditions applicable to those sites will take time to finalise. Turf cutters are being asked to sign the interim agreement, on the understanding that when a relocation site is sourced, assessed and agreed, they will be asked to sign a final legal agreement at that time. If it is not possible to find a suitable relocation site, for example, for reasons of quality or quantity of turf, planning requirements or issues relating to the purchase or lease of a site, my Department will consult with turf cutters as to the best option to take at that time. I am satisfied that the legal agreements as set out are appropriate to the circumstances in these cases.
It is the aim of my Department to secure a relocation site for every person who has applied for one and progress is being made in that task. However, relocation is a complex process that takes time to deliver. The agreements being issued reflect this reality. The interim agreement is designed to give all stakeholders the time to deliver relocation options that work for turf cutters. The clear directions that I have given my officials is to examine all relocation options with a view to securing alternative cutting locations for as many turf cutters as possible within the shortest timeframe.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House
Some 1,689 legal agreements have been issued and my Department is continuing to issue agreements to qualifying applicants. Applicants have been requested to return the completed legal agreements within four months of the date of issue. Some 1,151 legal agreements have been returned to my Department thus far. To-date, in the region of 700 once-off incentive payments of €500 have been made to applicants in respect of these legal agreements. The numbers of legal agreements by type issued by and returned to my Department are not available at this time because the Department is prioritising the making of payments and the finalisation of contracts.
I thank the Minister for his response. The difficulty is that the officials in the Department are supposed to have been looking at relocation options since 1996. How much more time are they to be given? In regard to the interim legal agreement, the contract as it stands allows for compensation to be paid only for a maximum of six years. What happens after the six years if an alternative bog is not available? The contract is heavily weighted in favour of the Department and during the period of the contract the Department has access to the individual's bog and could carry out works that would make it impossible for the bog owner to start cutting turf there again. Is it the intention of the Department to do that? Does the Department intend to ensure other alternatives are put in place or does it intend to close the door after the six-year period.
In response to Deputy Naughten's, this is a very complex issue. The Deputy has been raising this issue in the Dáil for a number of years and has been very consistent on the issue. Given the location of the bogs, I would hope it will be possible to find relocation sites for the 700 or so turf cutters who have expressed an interest in relocation. As the Deputy knows, the majority of turf cutters have accepted the compensation and significant numbers are signing up to the contracts daily.
Approximately 1,151 legal contracts have been returned to the Department and we are going through the process. I agree these people are entitled to relocation since they have expressed an interest in it. Unfortunately the quality and quantity of turf of some of the bogs the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association, TCCA, identified for possible relocation sites do not measure up, which means we must consider other alternatives. I am very hopeful we can satisfy the 700 people on the special areas of conservation within the six-year period. I will respond to another question which has been tabled on bog relocation later. Progress has been made in Clara bog and in Curraghlehanagh and Carrownagappul bogs in Galway, and I hope they will be ready for relocation next year. It is not an easy process but I am confident we are making progress.
My understanding is turf cutters on Clara bog did not have to sign away their turbary rights but under the contracts before turf cutters throughout the country at present they are signing away their turbary rights. How many times has the Department issued either letters of clarification or letters of comfort to facilitate the signing of the approximately 1,200 legal agreements which have been signed? The Minister may not have the figure to hand but if he could come back to me on the issue I would appreciate it.
Will the Minister specify which bogs identified by the TCCA as possible relocation bogs have turned out not to be suitable for turf cutting? Will he also tell me how just over 1,000 of the more than 9,000 turbary rights holders on the so-called special areas of conservation signing something is majority? My understanding is even at the round figure of 9,000 turbary right holders a majority would be 4,501.
I am not aware there is a difference between Clara bog and other bogs. As Deputy Naughten knows, we are not taking ownership of the bog from people. They still own the bog and all we are doing is ensuring they do not cut the bogs. With regard to the letters of clarification and comfort, there is a continuous process between the Department and turf cutters. It is a very busy office as the Deputy can imagine. I do not have the information here but I can certainly find out for the Deputy. The contractual arrangement is quite complex. Deputy Naughten has been very helpful in the past in trying to find a solution to this and if he has any suggestions I will certainly hear them. From the very beginning my door has always been open for discussion, even to those who criticise me at times.
I will certainly come back to Deputy Flanagan with the clarification he seeks on the bogs the TCCA recommended for relocation which did not measure up with regard to quality and quantity. Unfortunately, when some of the bogs which we thought were the ideal solution were examined it was discovered they do not have the quality or quantity of turf to satisfy the number of people seeking relocation.