Tuesday, 3 July 2018
Heritage Bill 2016: Report Stage
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 4, lines 18 and 19, to delete all words from and including “These” in line 18 down to and including line 19.
I propose the deletion of this text which was inserted by amendment on Committee Stage.
I thank the Deputy for his input. Deputy Ó Cuív has discussed this matter with the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland, Waterways Ireland and officials from my Department. However, the final position is that the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel advises that the proposed text detracts from the clarity of the section. It is not clear what would be a necessary impediment as opposed to an unnecessary impediment. In addition, no criteria are supplied that would assist Waterways Ireland as to what matters should be given weight when considering a designation that would impede navigation. The amendment creates a tension with the proposed section 5(1)(a) - at lines 8 to 15 on page 4 - which gives equal weight to, on the one hand, Waterways Ireland's functions to do with navigation and, on the other, its functions with regard to fishing and other recreations. Navigation is not prioritised. This seeks to place navigation above the other purposes for which the public may use the canals, which is not what paragraph (a) provides. Accordingly, I ask the Deputy to support the deletion of this text. I thank Deputy Ó Cuív for the many hours he spent talking to my officials on these provisions.
We accept that Waterways Ireland is a North-South body with two Ministers in charge. The concern was that someone would make orders impeding navigation. I have been assured that will not happen and that under the current legislation, one cannot close a waterway on a permanent basis without the agreement of both Ministers. On that basis, we will certainly not oppose the amendment. I thank the Minister's officials for the detailed discussions we had. It gave us all a better understanding of where we are coming from on this issue. It gave us assurances that the waterways will remain waterways. It is difficult to think now of the time in Ireland when we were closing things all over the place, including waterways and railway lines, that we would love to have back again. We can take it absolutely that it will not happen in the case of these waterways.
I move amendment No. 2:
In page 4, lines 35 to 37, to delete all words from and including ", subject" in line 35 down to and including "for" in line 37.
I propose the deletion of the text inserted by an amendment on Committee Stage. While I appreciate the point made by Deputy Ó Cuív, I am advised by the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel that this text makes the primary legislation secondary to provisions in by-laws, which is unacceptable. The maximum dimensional criteria are specified in section 14 of the 1998 canal by-laws and the Office of Parliamentary Counsel advises that it is not correct to give a broad power in an Act, such as the power provided for here to regulate the type or class of boat or to restrict a certain type or class of boat at paragraph (d) at lines 1 and 2 on page 5, and then to curtail that power by making it subject to that which is specified in regulations or other secondary legislation. I thank the Deputy again for the many hours he has spent on this.
Having looked at the legislation again and, perhaps, read it more carefully, what is provided for in the proposed section 7(1) is a power to make by-laws. Having looked at the by-law that exists on dimensions, I agree that this is not an appropriate place to specify that level of detail. Can the Minister confirm for the record that to make a by-law, it must be published for 90 days and all relevant parties must be notified, which is a matter we will come to later in the debate? In that way, any by-law that will be introduced in future to amend what is there will not easily be passed unnoticed. Therefore, people need not worry that the dimensions of the usage of the canal will be reduced. I had not realised either until I looked at the by-law how detailed were the dimensions set out therein. As such, I accept the amendment.
I move amendment No. 3:
In page 4, line 38, after “canals” to insert the following:“, within agreed procedures on a temporary basis due to an emergency or to facilitate a planned event or maintain and upgrade”.
I would be interested to hear the Minister's view on this.
While I understand the concerns of Deputy Ó Cuív, I cannot accept this amendment. In the first instance, I assure the Deputy that navigations cannot be permanently closed without the agreement of the North-South Ministerial Council. This proposal overly limits the closing of navigations to emergency situations and planned events and does not take account of other reasons for which a navigation can be closed such as land drainage, flood management and control, lack of water and low water levels, the sinking of a vessel or object, the need to protect men working or a drowning. Waterways Ireland issues marine notices regularly advising of the closure of navigations and this proposal is a matter appropriate for by-laws. However, it is not always practical or workable to give due notice before the closure of a navigation in an emergency situation. I am informed that this matter was discussed at length at the meetings between Deputy Ó Cuív, the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland, Waterways Ireland and my officials. Arising from those meetings, Waterways Ireland and the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland will work together to put in place an advance-notice system in addition to the marine notices. I thank the Deputy for all of his work in this regard.
I thank the Minister for that. There were very fruitful meetings and a great deal of progress was made in the wider sphere to reassure those who use waterways. Waterways will not be closed unnecessarily and good procedures will be put in place in order that people are forewarned where it is at all possible unless there is an emergency situation.
I move amendment No. 4:
In page 5, line 3, after “permits” to insert “(for mooring and passage by boats)”.
This amendment seeks to limit permits to moorings and passage by boats and to provide that licenses can be for other things. I would be interested to hear the Minister's view.
While I thank the Deputy for his proposal, I am not accepting the amendment as it proposes provisions which are appropriate to the making of by-laws. The provision in the Heritage Bill is an enabling one to allow Waterways Ireland to make by-laws for the issue of permits or licences to authorise and regulate the use of boats on the canal and canal property. My understanding is that the meetings the Deputy attended with the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland, Waterways Ireland and my officials were most constructive and that many of the concerns raised can be addressed in the context of future dialogue between the parties and consultation on by-laws rather than in primary legislation, which is not the appropriate place to specify detail of the sort proposed. I thank the Deputy for all his work.
In our discussions, the understanding was that moorings, passage by boats and other short-term matters would be dealt with by way of permits. When it comes to more long-term matters that do not necessarily relate to moorings and passage by boat, one is talking about licences. On that basis, I will not press the amendment. It is very important as we go forward that the dialogue which has taken place in recent weeks is built on while bureaucracy is kept to a minimum. We live in a world in which forms seem to take so much of the pleasure out of life. I had to purchase a car recently and nearly got a pain in my hand from signing so many forms and bits of paper. It seems to be the nature of the world in which we live that everything is more and more complex and involves long documents. People use the canals to enjoy themselves and I hope we can go forward in a spirit of keeping bureaucracy to a minimum, accepting that the vast majority of people use the canals in a spirit of positivity and enjoyment.
I move amendment No. 5:
In page 5, to delete lines 27 to 29 and substitute the following:"(p) the charging and fixing of fees, tolls and charges in respect of the use by boats of the canals (including the use of locks on the canals and mooring on the canals) and the charging and fixing of fees in respect of the use by persons of the canals (including the taking of water from the canals);".
I am proposing an amendment to the text inserted by amendment on Committee Stage. I thank Deputy Ó Cuív for his amendment and his positive and constructive input to discussions and meetings. The text inserted on Committee Stage presents a number of difficulties. In the first place, "users" is very broad. The wording in brackets, which remains unaffected, clearly relates to users who are boaters and there is a disconnect between the broadness of the person who would be covered and the specificity of the matters mentioned in the brackets. This is being amended on the advice of the Office of Parliamentary Counsel. The amendment reinstates "use by boats" which fits with the wording in brackets and provides an amended wording which, I believe, reflects the intention of the Deputy's amendment on Committee Stage. Once again, I thank Deputy Ó Cuív for all his work.
I have to say the elegance of the new wording is beyond reproach and replaces a more clumsy wording. I am pleased that the Minister accepted the spirit in which the amendment was put forward and that there was a change needed. Obviously, I would never argue with the Office of Parliamentary Counsel when it comes to good wording. I agree with this amendment.
I move amendment No. 6:
In page 5, line 40, to delete "and" and substitute the following:"(ii) develop a system whereby interested parties can register electronically with Waterways Ireland and be notified automatically of all bye-laws proposed to be made, and".
I put this amendment forward here so that we can have a brief debate. Good reasons were put in our discussions as to why this should not be pressed and I accept them. What was agreed, however, is that a system would be put in place that somebody could register with Waterways Ireland, although it would not be legally binding, and be notified of any by-laws. Otherwise, as I pointed out on Committee Stage, much of the time people would be looking for the one tree in the forest of paperwork. We need systems that are more user-friendly so that people can register and then be notified of any by-laws. For instance, a person could write to say he or she is only interested in by-laws pertaining to a certain area.
I will withdraw the amendment on the basis that it is better done by management, agreement and protocols rather than primary legislation, but I ask the Minister to confirm that she would be favourable towards such an approach that would be put there de facto but not de jure.
I thank Deputy Ó Cuív for withdrawing the amendment. The proposal is an operational matter for Waterways Ireland and is not appropriate for primary legislation. I accept what the Deputy says, however, and the Department will take a note of that.
I move amendment No. 7:
In page 6, lines 22 and 23, to delete "Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs" and substitute "Minister for Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht".
This is a minor amendment to update the reference to the Minister to that of the Minister's current title.
I move amendment No. 8:
In page 6, line 32, to delete "website." and substitute the following:"website, and(iii) ensure that Authorised Officers have access to a copy of the bye-laws (electronic or printed version) for presentation on request by a canal user.".
The amendment would ensure that the authorised officers would have access to the by-laws. I would like to hear the Minister's response to this one.
I am not accepting this amendment. This proposal is unnecessary as the by-laws are available and accessible online. Other enforcement agencies and bodies, such as conservation rangers, gardaí and inland fisheries officers, operate in the same way. It is good practice for users of the waterways to become familiar with the legislation governing the waterways and the marine notices in place. It would confuse the role of the authorised officer. I thank the Deputy for his contribution. I understand that in the discussions and meetings with the Deputy, Waterways Ireland undertook to put a link to the legislation on its website.
In general, access to the by-laws is not an issue. They will be available on devices, such as smartphones or tablets. I cannot accept a situation, however, where temporary unavailability, such as a dropped phone or a gap in Internet signal, results in the authorised officer being unable to carry out his or her functions.
I move amendment No. 12:
In page 9, between lines 12 and 13, to insert the following:(iii) if the evidence requested under subparagraph (ii) is not available then an individual should be able to produce said evidence within a reasonable period of time and at a place as specified by bye-laws;".
This seeks to ensure that somebody would have an opportunity, if he or she did not have the required documentation on his or her person, to hand it in. I understand that is the practice. The Minister might reply to the amendment and I will consider it further then.
I am not accepting this amendment as it is a material change to the provision. I am informed that this matter was discussed in the meetings the Deputy had with the waterway associations and my Department. I am also informed, as the Deputy mentioned, that Waterways Ireland has stated that this happens in practice. Waterways Ireland would know if a permit has been applied for and there is no need to specify this in the primary legislation.
I move amendment No. 13:
In page 9, line 28, to delete "persons on canal property" and substitute "owner of a boat".
I propose the deletion of this text inserted by amendment on Committee Stage and reverting to the initial wording. I appreciate Deputy Ó Cuív's input on this matter but the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel has advised that the Committee Stage amendment duplicates "persons on canal property" which is in lines 17 to 18 on page 9, and an unintended consequence of the Committee Stage amendment is that an authorised officer can no longer issue directions to the owner of a boat unless he or she is on the canal or on canal property at the time.
I want to follow-up on a previous question raised by Deputy Ó Cuív on Committee Stage on the difference between subsection (6) and subsection (5)(iv). Subsection (6) is broader in that directions can relate to the authorised officer's functions generally and not only for the purposes of ensuring compliance and the care, management and maintenance of property. We should remember that the purpose of the legislation is to regulate the use of boats on the canals.
I accept that there was a duplication here. A more careful reading shows what the Minister states is a fact, that the persons who are not boat owners are catered for but one might want to contact a boat owner when he or she is not on the canal. In other words, a boat owner might leave a boat on the canal. Therefore, the two subsections are slightly different. One is giving an order to somebody who is on the waterways. The other one is giving an order to somebody who might or might not be on the waterways but who has a boat that is on the property. On that basis, I agree with the amendment.
Amendments Nos. 15 to 23, inclusive, are related. Amendments Nos. 16 to 23, inclusive, are physical alternatives to amendment No. 15. Amendment No. 17 is a physical alternative to amendment No. 16. Amendments Nos. 19 to 22, inclusive, are physical alternatives to amendment No. 18. Amendments Nos. 20 to 22, inclusive, are physical alternatives to amendment No. 19. Amendments Nos. 21 and 22 are physical alternatives to amendment No. 20. Amendments Nos. 15 to 23, inclusive, may be discussed together.
We are at the most controversial element of the Bill for many people. We know that massive damage has been done over the past 40 years to Irish wildlife. We know that modern society is particularly bad when it comes to diversity and its impact on nature. We currently see billions of tonnes of plastic in either landfill or in the sea, killing diversity there. We know that as a society, we are doing massive damage to the climate at present. We know this damages us because we have a symbiotic relationship with nature, the natural world is vital for human well-being and biodiversity is an urgent issue. We know that Governments say one thing and do another. They talk about protection of the environment when in fact they collude in its destruction. It is becoming massively difficult for farmers in this country as well. Farmers find it difficult to make a living and they are pushed to the pin of their collars. In many ways some farmers will see this as a way to make life a little bit easier for themselves in how they go about their work but it will not address the major needs that farmers have.
We also know that the cutting back of hedges and the burning of moorland and mountain tops physically reduces the habitat of animals at key stages of their development.
I pay tribute to the firefighters in County Meath who are currently battling away trying to deal with a bog fire outside of Kildalkey. We know that even within their timescale, these fires can be quite dangerous in how they are used. Most fires in this country happen outside of the legal process and very few happen within a controlled area.
In reality, this particular Bill will not do a lot for either farmers or conservationists because the difficulties both groups have are very complex and quite large and will not be dealt with by this Bill. The amendments I have tabled that we are discussing here seek to simply protect the natural environment, our heritage and biodiversity and to do so in a scientific way in order that we understand exactly the impact we are having on that diversity. I understand that some people will make the argument that there is a necessity for better road safety and that is one of the reasons why the extension to the cutting of hedges is being given. I was involved in a serious accident myself on a narrow road where there were large hedges. There are ways to resolve that without causing damage to the biodiversity of our natural environment and which could allow for residents, farmers or people who use particular roads to contact a local authority and seek for verges or hedges to be cut in a timely fashion to ensure that traffic and transport is safe along those thoroughfares.
It is important that the Minister takes a pause and sees the damage that would be done by this Bill and I encourage her to accept the amendment.
The way the amendments are ordered is almost as complicated as the Bill. I hope that we can do this in an iterative way because this deserves real attention and our forensic focus in what we are doing.
I had the privilege at the weekend of cycling down through Wexford and back up through Wicklow. There is nothing like cycling to get a sense of the countryside. What I got a sense of was a countryside under stress. Anyone who is involved in farming would know it, particularly in the south east.
I saw the hedgerows with plastic bottles littered everywhere but in the fields there were cattle standing in dry, dusty pasture and they were being fed from first cut silage and next winter's fodder without any sign of growth. It is a tough time for Irish farming and we need to make sure that they have a secure and healthy future. I will be honest in that it reminded me how wonderful this country is because of our hedgerows. I know there is an issue around road safety and we have to look after that but it is one of the spectacular things about nature in our country that unlike other countries we have hedgerows of quality. I hope Deputy Fitzmaurice does not mind me giving away what we said in a private conversation over tea, but as it happens we were just talking about his memory of growing up in the west where there would be a field with a five hedge system. They were told by all the Teagasc experts to get rid of them so that they would have a more productive system and then they realised that they lost the ability to manage floodwaters. The services the hedgerows provided were significant and real. That is why we bitterly and deeply oppose these provisions in this Bill. We feel that it risks a further degradation and deterioration in our hedgerow system.
In the latter part of my journey, having cycled down as far as Ballymoney in Wexford I headed back up through Wicklow, up over the mountains by the Sally Gap and for the section for several miles between the Sally Gap and Kippure I was cycling through a burnt wasteland. The mountain was on fire. There was a 3 sq. km bog fire and it was spectacular in scale and size. Further on at the edge of Lough Bray Upper, a spectacular area which people know, the Air Corps were doing an incredible job trying to scoop water out of the lake and put out the fire. I talked to the rangers who happened to be there and they said that the problem is that the peat is so hot now that it is reigniting all of the time. It is almost self-reigniting. The fires must have been started as a result of human intervention and there are real questions around that. Maybe it was just my personal experience but to cycle for miles through a smoke filled, burnt environment reminded me that we have to be careful in what we do with our mountains.
One other change that has taken place since we last discussed this Bill is that RTÉ "Prime Time" programme which showed up the lack of enforcement of environmental regulations in this country and all of the reassurances the Minister has given on Committee Stage and in previous Readings count for nothing in my mind because if we cannot manage illegal dumps ten times the size of this room, how will we look after a nest? I have been provided with some figures since our discussion on this issue last week as to what we are doing in terms of enforcement of existing wildlife protection measures and the number of people who have been in breach of them and the answer is that nothing has been done. If burning on the mountain tops are looked at, again none of it is properly co-ordinated. It is promised that it will be done in a regulated and safe way but the evidence is the exact opposite. Whatever advantage that may come in certain circumstances where someone wants to cut back shrub or encourage grass or heather growth for a particular species, and there may be some advantage, that is not what is happening. We are burning land and then going back burning it again a few years later in a way that is destroying the environment. We are burning in environments where it fundamentally changes, distorts and destroys the environment and that will only get worse in an environment that is changing because of climate change. I mentioned the farmers at the very start because we need a national land use plan where we sit down with our farmers and work out in real detail what our plan is, what we will do, how we will create an income and how we will pay those farmers in the areas that are not advantaged by rich land and pasture, how will we pay them for the services they provide in helping us to manage floodwaters, in helping to provide biodiversity and in providing recreational value and assets.
That is what we should be doing. We should not allow burning in March and cutting of hedges in August. That is plain wrong. There are several of our amendments in that grouping but our first preference is to take out section 7 and recognise that the Bill does an acute disservice to our environment and should be stopped. There are various options in the amendments but if we insist on providing protection for road users, which is valid, our amendments make sure the Bill achieves that purpose. It is not a question of wholesale destruction of the environment. It is specific and forensic and achieves that objective.
The problem with the Bill is that it takes a wholesale "let it go, let them burn, let it be cut" attitude when the problem is not the people who want to maintain their fences and hedgerows and maintain the land properly. They can do that. In the off-peak periods they can cut hedges and manage the uplands. The problem with the hedgerows is people who do not do what they need to do. That needs local authority intervention and management. It does not need Fine Gael writing a blank cheque to slash every hedge in the country which I fear will happen as a result of this Bill.
One gets great pleasure from walking the hills and laneways or cycling pathways and using all the attractions that this country has to offer, despite the loss of habitats and species, the 40% reduction in the bee population, which is quite scary when we realise the role the bee plays in the food chain and the reproductive life of this island, and the red listing of six or seven native species of birds in danger of extinction. This Bill will take the cutting period, which is now closed from April to August to protect the very vegetation and wildlife that I have spoken about during the months of growth and reproduction, and extend it by another month at either end. I cannot understand the thinking behind that and I wish the Minister would explain it. I hope she accepts the amendment which is so important because during these periods wildlife is beginning to nest and reproduce and is at its best.
If the insect species that inhabit all hedgerows, uplands and bogs etc. are deprived of their existence, that will have a knock-on effect on the survival of other insects, birds and other animals. Why would we deprive them of an opportunity to exist, with a knock-on effect on everybody else? A total of 28% of Ireland's breeding birds are in decline and 31% of habitats are in decline. Those in decline include the barn owl, the yellowhammer, the curlew, the golden plover, the red-breasted goose and the meadow pipit. They all sound beautiful and they are beautiful and virtually unique to this country. The action provided for in this Bill would endanger them. The action of the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht in connection with wildlife inhabitants would not be countenanced anywhere else in Europe. If the Minister can tell me this legislation is in line with any EU directives I would like to hear her do so. Many Europeans who come to this country are already shocked at the lax and light-touch regulation in place to maintain our wildlife.
Allowing land users to define road safety is crazy. With all due respect to farmers and land users, this is a level of democracy that is not allowed to anyone else. Public sector workers do not have a say in how their jobs function, neighbourhood watch would not be allowed to have a say in how the community is policed but the Bill practically gives ownership of the Road Safety Authority to land users. This is completely wrong. While I have great respect for land users and farmers, they should not be allowed to define road safety. That should be left to the Road Safety Authority.
When we make the effort there is considerable buy-in from farmers and communities in the idea of sustainability of farming, of local communities, habitats and animals and birds. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has focused very much on the Burren, carrying out sustainability exercises in County Clare because of the special nature of the area. Having been there for a week's walking recently I can say it is working beautifully and is preserving the flowers, the bees, the birds and the nature that make up the wealth of that area, as well as helping the farmers to know how and when to farm in a correct way to help it survive.
Whether it is the uplands, the lowlands, the Burren, the hedgerows, or whatever it may be, we should be careful about passing this aspect of the Bill. If we do we will give carte blancheto people to attack species when they are at their best, when they are young and reproducing and need to inhabit the hedgerows and bogs, etc. We will also allow people to take over the role of the Road Safety Authority and in the course of so doing endanger the existence of many of our most beautiful species of birds. We seek the removal of this section.
It is fairly bizarre that in a Bill entitled the Heritage Bill the Government would propose measures that will destroy or threaten with extinction parts of our natural heritage. Like Deputy Smith, I would like the Minister to explain what response she has to the concerns being raised by the people who are knowledgeable and expert in the protection of wildlife. One of the junior Ministers – I will not name him – was chortling during the week when I was speaking about the birds and the bees. He seemed to think it was funny but the birds and the bees matter. The fact that a significant number of bee species face possible extinction, that we have had a huge loss of the bee population, as Deputy Smith said, and that a whole series of birds are on the red list, facing possible extinction because we have not protected their habitats, is serious. The Government needs to explain how allowing measures that would destroy their habitats at crucial and sensitive times of year can possibly be justified.
The point about road safety has been well made. We already have legislative provisions which ensure that local authorities can cut down hedgerows that are a danger to road safety so we simply do not need to do it. Burning times similar to those proposed in the Bill have not stopped upland fires in other places. If somebody lights a match it does not matter at what time of year it is allowed or not, fires are caused. These measures will not prevent some of the things the Government is saying they will prevent but they will destroy the habitats of the birds and the bees.
When our biodiversity needs greater support and protection and certain species are under threat and need to be protected, the Government is introducing measures that will do damage. This makes a mockery of commitments that have been made. We engaged with the Taoiseach the other day on the Government's commitments to biodiversity, yet it is allowing measures that will substantially reduce our biodiversity when it is under threat. Despite it being one of our great assets and it could be a far bigger asset, the Government is allowing measures that will reduce our biodiversity. I do not see the justification for them.
This should not be viewed as a debate between the environmentalists and the farmers, although it is often played out in that manner. I accept that insofar as we need to take measures to protect our biodiversity, in doing so we must also support and engage with farmers and rural communities.
One of the amendments we tabled, which was ruled out of order - I do not know why but I will not get into that debate now - proposed establishing a proper consultation process with the various stakeholders to examine how these issues could be addressed in a way that would not be damaging to the environment. This did not occur in the context of the Bill. The Minister is indicating there was consultation but according to the environmental organisations, that is not the case. Those organisations are obviously all telling porkies. They are very unhappy about what the Minister is proposing and 30,000 people have signed petitions protesting against her proposals.
An email I received suggests this measure may well be in breach of the EU birds directive. Has that been properly assessed? A regulatory impact assessment was not done on this Bill. Such an assessment constitutes best practice. When one is considering introducing new regulations that may have a substantial impact on the environment they should be subject to a regulatory impact assessment. Effectively, what the Minister is saying is that changing the law will itself be the assessment because there will be a trial. She should have ensured a proper assessment was carried out beforehand to gauge whether the measures in this Bill could fall foul of EU directives on environmental protection, the birds directive and our biodiversity. She should have engaged properly with environmentalists and people who are knowledgeable and expert in these areas who say she has not engaged to a satisfactory degree. I appeal to her to reconsider and support this amendment which proposes the deletion of this controversial and concerning section.
People need to understand that we have a managed landscape around this country. I hear people talking about farmers but farmers are brought up in nature. If a farmer causes destruction in his field, he pays for it as he will not receive any support from a State agency. Sometimes it is harrowing for farmers to hear people talk about what they do when those people only see an acre of land on a television programme or when they drive by it but they have never had to farm it, live on it, earn a living from it and rear a family. We need to be very conscious of that.
Deputy Ó Cuív, with whom I spoke about the Bill, will go discuss this point in more detail. Everybody should be aware that, under the Roads Act, farmers are obliged to maintain their hedges. If somebody gets hurt, the farmer is liable. I point that out in case Members were not aware of it. Everybody is talking about Transport Infrastructure Ireland, TII, local councils and others doing everything but if Members check the Roads Act 1993 it includes the wording "a tree, shrub, hedge or other vegetation" and if they pose a danger to a road user, the farmer is liable. We need to be mindful of that when discussing the Bill.
Deputy Eamon Ryan was right about what happened in the past. I remember in the 1980s, the EU - it was not Teagasc and I will not blame a local body - gave grants to farmers not to knock hedges but to knock ditches in fields. In my area we ended up turning five fields into one, but now we are coming full circle. In fairness, a regulation introduced by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine provides that not more than 500 m can be knocked now, and rightly so. That helped with respect to flooding, as the Deputy pointed out.
We are having great weather now but people need to be conscious that in September and October last year one could not go into a field on marginal ground in my area. As I said the other night, our land is only becoming normal now. In a month's time, we may be able to help deal with a problem on a road rather than ploughing up a field. A farmer does not go into a field willy-nilly to cause destruction to wildlife. We are brought up a different way. We should make sure we are mindful of that.
Regarding the burning of vegetation, anyone who comes from a rural area will know that when controlled burning is carried out there will be more food for the birds with the vegetation that grows back. People do not understand some of these practices. There is a saying that it would not feed a snipe but if one burns vegetation, what grows back will provide food for the birds. We are brought up with nature. We come from a managed landscape that the farmers of this country have to keep as best as is possible. I am not saying everyone is perfect and no one will ever say that but, in fairness to most of farmers and especially those in the west, they are not rewarded for what they do.
I ask the Government to consider addressing one issue. There is a great degree of land designation in the area from which I and Deputy Ó Cuív come, which puts great pressure on farmers. There is a danger that with land abandonment we will have an a unmanaged landscape, which would not be good for anyone. Deputy Bríd Smith referred to the Burren in County Clare. It might serve the Deputy well to read back on what happened with the Burren in the past. The State put millions of pounds into it and it was a total disaster. The first thing it did was take the cows off the Burren. When that was found not to work, the State listened to the farmers. That is what is important. People who live a distance from the countryside seem to believe they will tell everyone down the country how to live their lives. In this case, the State listened to the farmers and the Deputy is right in pointing out that the Burren has been a success. That is the type of partnership that is needed.
There are two key issues in section 7. The first is to allow burning in March. I live in one of the wettest places in Ireland and the idea of burning anything in February is ludicrous. The reality is that the burning of open hill has been going on for a long time. As I said in the committee, there is a reference in the poem, "Anach Cuan" to "Loscadh sléibhte agus scalladh cléibhe ... ar an mhéid a báthadh". The poet was talking about loscadh sléibhte, which is basically the burning of the hills. It was a type of curse he brought down on them. It was a common phenomenon in his time and we know wildlife thrived at that time. What we are talking about is very limited controlled burning. I ask the Minister to indicate how limited it will be because I understand permission is needed for controlled burning. She might explain to the House just how little controlled burning takes place.
The second issue is that the vegetation on a hill can grow and become very woody. This means the heather is not like fresh heather and contains a great deal of wood. The danger is that if somebody lights a match to it in this kind of weather, outside the burning system, the entire hill, as Deputy Ryan eloquently put it, will go up in flames. The bog will then start to burn and we will have a big problem.
In most cases we do not know who starts these fires. It was very interesting that when some farmers in Connemara were penalised by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine because their hill went on fire, we managed to get the penalty rowed back. It was confirmed by the authorities that none of the farmers penalised was under any suspicion of having lit the fire. We do not know.
Nobody is proposing that we ban visitors to the countryside in hot or dry weather just because somebody might light a match. It could just as easily be somebody from outside the area as inside the area. As to who might do it, careless behaviour knows no limits. There are thousands of people - thankfully - who visit the countryside at this time of the year. All it takes is for somebody to light up during a careless picnic and up goes the mountain. Blaming it on, or presuming the fault lies with, some local farmer is very unfair. I do not attach blame to anybody and I do not believe we should keep anybody out of the countryside. It is a risk we just have to take and live with. Saying that controlled burning in March - it cannot be done in February on most hills - is going to cause destruction to the hills is not understanding what controlled burning is about.
The other proposal in the Bill provides that under regulations not yet specified, hedge cutting would be allowed in August. Perhaps the Minister will confirm in her reply if these regulations would have to be brought in by way of statutory instrument. It would allow for one hedge, that is, roadside hedges. In reality there are eight sides to a hedge. If one takes the top of the hedge as being a side there are another four so there are 12 sides to a hedge, but we will take it as being eight sides. The proposal is for a person to be allowed to cut one side of the hedge, the roadside, in a field that has a roadside. Anyone who thinks that farmers are going to willy-nilly get out very expensive equipment and do the roadside hedges all around the country for no reason and then come back some time later in September or October and do the other sides of the hedge, knows very little about the efficiency of cutting hedges. It would just allow for cutting a side of a hedge in August where it is deemed to be necessary to do so, basically for health and safety reasons. If doing so, a person can do the whole face of the hedge.
It is absolutely true that there is a lot more hedgerow in the State now than 40 or 50 years ago. Land was much more intensively farmed and farmers did an awful lot of hedge cutting in times gone by, and 100 years ago every piece of useable land was used. All of the hedges were cut back in the winter because there was very little other work to do. They really cut them down in wintertime, without a doubt. There is a challenge to biodiversity but is the cutting of roadside hedges the problem or is it pesticides, herbicides and other attacks on habitats? Is it invasive species, including mammals that have come to Ireland, such as mink? Are they the real destroyers or is it roadside hedges being cut in August? We must ask ourselves this question.
I live in a rural area where a lot of people never go down the boreens except the locals. People go along the regional roads and the county class 1 roads, but they have not been down the tertiary roads, up the little valleys or down the little roads. If the Minister was to talk to any parent of any schoolchild about the cutting of hedges before the children go back to school, the parents will tell us that their little sons or daughters should not be put at risk. I am sorry but this is what the parents will tell the Minister; their sons or daughters should not be put at risk for the want of cutting just one face of a hedge in August. This is what is proposed.
The original Bill went further and was going to allow wholesale cutting of hedges in August. We tabled an amendment in the Seanad. The Minister has obviously accepted this amendment, which limits what was intended. I believe it is minimal and puts human life where it should be, ahead of every other consideration.
It is my privilege to represent the constituency of Dublin Rathdown but I was brought up in nature. I was brought up in rural Ireland, though stony grey soil it may have been. This is exactly why I share the grave concerns of wildlife and heritage organisations such as BirdWatch Ireland, the Hedge Laying Association of Ireland, the Irish Wildlife Trust, An Taisce and the Federation of Irish Beekeepers Associations. I believe that sections 7 and 8 of the Bill are anti-heritage and should be consigned to the scrap heap.
The Minister is aware that in our own constituency of Dublin Rathdown, wildfires have raged in Ticknock and on the Blackglen Road. Residents have been advised that the area is unsafe and to stay indoors. This gives us a sneak preview of what it could be like if we extend the burning period. Last year from 24 March to 22 May, the Irish Wildlife Trust recorded 97 illegal wildfires in rural areas. Some 39 of these were in special conservation areas that are protected by EU habitats legislation. Sadly, the current law and the penalties or sanctions imposed on persons who are convicted of such destructive vandalism fail abysmally to protect Ireland’s heritage. Instead of putting in place real disincentives, however, and carrying out a real investigation into what happened and providing appropriate supports to those affected by the forest infernos, the Government’s sole response appears to be a determination - which seems to be growing by the day - to pass this anti-heritage slash and burn legislation.
As other Members have outlined, burning outside of the current season jeopardises a vast array of wildlife. For many birds, such as the endangered curlew whose population is in decline, March is a month of nesting. This is the time when they establish their territories, create their nests and prepare for laying their eggs. Curlews are facing global extinction. There are only 125 breeding pairs of curlews left in Ireland. There is a real risk that the Government's proposed change would be the last straw for the curlew. We need courageous leadership to face down the vested interests to protect our heritage.
Amendment No. 16 put forward by the Green Party seeks to delete section 7(1) in its entirety. We believe the burning period should not be extended to March, full stop. We seek that subsection to be deleted entirely.
On the other amendments in this group, amendments Nos. 15 to 23, inclusive, I ask the Acting Chairman's guidance. Does he want me to speak to them now or will I wait until amendments Nos. 15 and 16 have been voted on?
The other amendments are the physical alternatives. If the deletion of the entire subsection does not pass, this amendment would restrict the application of section 7(1) to only the part of section 40 of the Wildlife Act 1976 that applies to the destruction of vegetation on uncultivated land. Otherwise, this section could be used to apply to land which is covered under the part of section 40 that applies to hedges. Similarly, amendment No. 21 seeks to restrict the application of section 7(2), which expands the Minister’s power make regulations in respect of hedge cutting to just section 40(1)(b) in order that it does not open up all land covered under section 40, but just the land appropriate to hedge cutting regulation.
Amendment No. 18 removes the power of the Minister to make regulations for the expansion of hedge cutting into August and replaces it with a power for the Minister to make regulations for derogations to section 40 of the Wildlife Act for the purpose of ensuring public health and safety under the Roads Acts, and outlining the parameters of any such regulations. The Minister has said that section 7(2) will help to ensure that issues such as overgrown hedges can be tackled in August. If this is truly the Minister’s intention, the phrasing of this amendment, which seeks to provide the Minister with the powers for purpose of ensuring health and safety, makes much more sense.
I have already addressed amendment No. 21.
Amendment No. 22 alters section 7(2) so that it applies specifically to the purpose of ensuring the safe use of public roads during August. Again, if road safety is really the Government's intention with this section, as is so often maintained, then this amendment makes more sense.
Amendment No. 23 puts in place a further provision to section 7 allowing for the Minister to make regulations for further restrictions on hedge cutting into September, to protect the yellowhammer that nests into September. The yellowhammer is on the red list in Ireland.
I also wish to speak in general terms to sections 7 and 8. I will highlight some correspondence that I received about them and outline in particular concerns among beekeepers. In one email, the correspondent, a beekeeper in east Cork, told me that the person's apiaries had decreased in size from an average of 15 in the early 1990s to, at best, nine today. Honey bees are a great indicator species of the environment, as they only forage within a radius of 1.5 miles. The decrease can mostly be attributed to changes in farming practices such as hedge cutting and hedgerow removal. For that reason, the correspondent urged me to vote against sections 7 and 8. This is testimony from someone with an interest in beekeeping. Another person was concerned that the changes to the hedge cutting dates would lead to further declines in populations of the red listed yellowhammer, the linnet and the greenfinch and reduce essential food supplies for pollinators, of which one third are threatened with extinction. These are just two samples of a large number of emails to me outlining concerns with sections 7 and 8.
I represent an urban-rural constituency. I understand as well as western and north-western representatives sensitive issues in urban and rural areas. I have an understanding of rural issues because I speak to people in rural Ireland every single day of the week. We should not be going down the road of hedge cutting in the month of August. It is not a question of extending the period for hedge cutting but of ensuring adequate resources in the first instance so that hedge cutting can be completed in 100% of cases where necessary during the apposite season. When local authorities issue hedge cutting contracts, those contracts do not cover the entirety of the areas that need to be cut back. It is foolish of the House to go down this road without a proper interrogation and examination of what we are proposing to do.
I am not a dyed in the wool, die in a ditch environmentalist, but I hope I have common sense. I grew up spending large swathes of my time in the countryside and living in a town where one need only walk a mile to be out in the countryside. One had an understanding of the seasons and how they worked. Nesting was always vital and understood by rural dwellers. For every Deputy who tells the House that farmers are custodians and will make the right decisions, many farmers in my area have expressed to me concerns about what is being proposed in this Bill. Their concerns are echoed in the correspondence we have received from the likes of BirdWatch Ireland, with people telling us that Ireland's legal protections for nature are regressing. I have had my issues with An Taisce, which is a stakeholder body, entering objections to young people's planning applications in rural Ireland. I have my issues with many people who are headquartered, as it were, in Dublin and seek to profess widely of their knowledge of the dynamics of rural Ireland, but I do not know anyone who would disagree with the logic in BirdWatch Ireland's fears about this legislation, particularly sections 7 and 8. I do not know to which vested interest these sections are pandering, but they are against nature.
If the right resources and budgets were allocated to local authorities during the current window of opportunity for hedge cutting, every single hedgerow in the counties we represent could be cut annually or biannually where necessary and the red herring of protecting the leanaí going to school could not be used.
I pour scorn on the notion of selling this legislation as a two-year pilot covering all 26 counties. I am not the first person to make this point, but when has this country ever used pilot programmes that cover all counties? Previously, there might be one, two, four or six pilot programmes in every region. Are the Minister and her officials serious about this and asking us to take it seriously? It is a joke of a provision.
BirdWatch Ireland's submission reads:
The legislation is being sold as a 2-year 'Pilot' period which covers all 26 counties but no methodology for such a pilot has been provided, no baseline data has been gathered. Most worryingly, Section 8 of the Bill is not subject to the 'Pilot' period, it can continue indefinitely.
I realise that I am under time pressure.
I will be as quick as I can because I want to address the many points raised by Deputies. I am not accepting the amendment.
Deputy Tóibín has acknowledged the need to address the concerns of farmers and others who are dealing with these situations, including road safety issues, every day. The Bill is a balanced and proportionate way of addressing their concerns via a pilot period and under strict regulations, which I will make.
This is not a refuse control Bill. I have a biodiversity action plan, as the Deputy is aware, and I am investing €250,000 in county biodiversity planning this year. Our regime is a managed one. I pay tribute to the firefighters and responsible citizens. My Bill is about protecting the natural heritage. It is a pilot regime. Our climate is changing and our heritage and wildlife legislation needs to keep up with those changes.
Regarding Deputy Eamon Ryan's points, this Bill is the opposite of wholesale. The Deputy is misinformed. The two-year pilot period will be subject to regulations that will be laid before the Houses. Not every hedge is roadside only. While I understand that there are different points of view, we must be fair in our representations of what is in the Bill.
The National Parks and Wildlife Service, along with emergency services personnel, has been attending three fires in the Wicklow Mountains National Park since last Thursday. It took until Sunday evening to bring them under control. The area in question is in the Wicklow uplands special area of conservation, which contains high-value conservation habitats, including blanket bog, wet heath and dry heath. There are still flare-ups in certain areas, fanned by a stiff breeze as the fires smoulder in the deep heat. The only solution is to douse the areas with water.
Given the inaccessibility of the area, we have been using the resources of the Air Corps and private aircraft. There is evidence that many of these fires may have been started maliciously. This follows a persistent pattern in Wicklow in recent months where there have been multiple successful and failed attempts to light deliberate fires from the edges of the public road. I thank the staff of the National Parks and Wildlife Service in Wicklow, the Garda Síochána, the fire service and other emergency services for all their work in the past few days in trying to deal with these wildfires in difficult and arduous conditions. The Deputy is aware that the main reason for the burning provisions is to allow people managing land to burn for proper land management purposes in March where, for example, weather has prevented this. This year, the last day for burning was the day before Storm Emma. The provisions of the Bill seek to do this while taking account of all of our responsibilities to protect our natural heritage and wildlife. I am delighted that the Deputy is sensitive to our farmers and am glad that he acknowledges the importance of roadside hedges to cyclists. I hope he did not endanger himself by entering cordoned off areas where my staff were fighting all weekend.
I am not responsible for dumping. The Deputy is wrong about what we are doing.
For the first time since 2008, we are hiring rangers and ecologists. The green low-carbon agri-environment scheme, GLAS, has been a huge success in helping farmers. I think it is disingenuous and unfair for Deputy Catherine Martin to link illegal fires to responsible landowners and farmers, who are not the enemies of our heritage but its custodians, and have been for thousands of years. I want to be clear that illegal burning should not and will not be tolerated. We can all see from recent days the damage that can be caused by wildfires. I hope that in cases where fires have been caused maliciously that those responsible face the full force of the law. The Heritage Bill is not about illegal burning. I am proposing to allow controlled burning in certain areas during March if it is deemed necessary due to adverse weather conditions.
In answer to Deputy Eamon Ryan's question, since 2011 my Department has taken over 50 prosecutions against individuals for breaches of section 40 of the Wildlife Act. The most recent successful prosecution by my Department was in February, when a defendant was ordered to pay €500 to a wildlife charity for illegally cutting and destroying hedges in County Monaghan.
Deputy Bríd Smith raised the EU habitats directive and birds directive. With Ireland as a member state, we unanimously adopted the directive in 1979. Habitat loss and degradation are the most serious threats to the conservation of wild birds. We spoke about birds. The directive therefore places great emphasis on the protection of habitats for endangered and migratory species. It establishes a network of special protection areas, including all the most suitable territories for these species. Under the birds directive, every member state must report on progress to the Commission. Ireland's last report to the Commission for the period from 2008 to 2012 was submitted in 2013. The habitats directive covers more than 1,000 animal and plant species. The Deputy mentioned the Roads Act 1993, under which landowners have an obligation to cut hedges and vegetation on roadsides for road safety reasons. This legislation has been in force since 1993, that is, about 25 years. There is a provision under section 8 of the Bill to address conflicts between the Roads Acts and Wildlife Acts. I agree that our landscapes are a great amenity. Birds and hedges remain protected under the Wildlife Act. Under section 22, it is an offence to interfere with or damage a nest in any way. This Bill limits cutting to roadside hedges. The Deputy also cites several birds. I am not sure how many are roadside, hedge-dwelling birds. Land users also use the roads in the vicinity of their holdings every day. We need to respect their knowledge and husbandry of their holdings and hedges so ultimately, it is a matter for the farmer and landowner who planted the hedges.
Deputies Bríd Smith, Boyd Barrett and Sherlock mentioned bees. I am well aware of the contribution that bees make to biodiversity. I would like to make it clear to the House that the regulations that I will make on the cutting of hedges in August will be confined to hedges on roadsides only. I believe therefore that the overall impact on biodiversity will be curtailed. Given that flowering is largely over by August, the main forage for bees in August is heather, followed by herbaceous plants such as knapweed. Can I beg the Acting Chairman's indulgence for a little further?
A main threat to bee populations is the use of pesticides. The House may be aware that the European Commission took a decision recently, which was backed by member states including Ireland, to ban the use of neonicotinoids, which are one of the most widely-used pesticides. I welcome this decision as it would lead to further protection for honey bees. I might try to get in later to answer other Deputies' comments.
The Minister mentioned the different times of the year when there are different experiences with regard to weather. The fact is that, according to Met Éireann, March can be wetter than February and September can be drier than August. We spoke earlier about human life needing to be protected above all. When Deputy Humphreys developed this Bill, I contacted the Road Safety Authority and asked if the Department talked to it about development of the Bill. The Road Safety Authority said it had not. I thought, for a Bill dressed up as being about road safety, that that was an incredible answer. My amendment No. 20 seeks to address the issues. It seeks to permit the management of vegetation growing in any hedge or ditch. There is a solution to solve road safety problems that does not mean the destruction of all road-facing hedgerows in this country.
The most recent report on Ireland from the Convention on Biological Diversity in 2014 creates stark reading. Only 9% of habitats detailed in that were identified as being in a favourable condition, compared with 50% that were described as being in an inadequate condition and 41% that were considered in a bad condition. A significant number of species covered under the EU birds directive in the country are in decline. As the Minister mentioned again and again, the farmers are looking after their lands. The truth is that whether one is from inner city Ireland or rural Ireland, this is our island. We should not be trying to separate people on this issue. We are all doing damage to the biodiversity of this country. We are doing it in manners that are contained within this Bill, which is why it needs to be fixed. The Opposition is regularly blamed for being negative with regard to Government proposals and not providing practical alternatives but we have lambasted the Minister today with a number of practical alternatives that will save lives and yet protect the biodiversity of our country.
I mentioned cycling because that is my personal experience, having spent 15 years bringing people around the country, often on the very boreens about which Deputy Ó Cuív was talking. It is not just for cyclists but for all tourists. It is not just tourists but that is not an insignificant issue. They love that sense on our roads. We have to be careful and manage them for road safety. That is why we have put in amendments. There is a difficulty in that there are so many grouped amendments. Our amendment No. 18 sets out exactly how that could be done. If road safety is our intention in hedgerow cutting, let us put the resources into it and do it properly rather than having a free-for-all, which the Minister is allowing.
With regard to the burning on the uplands, I talked to rangers and asked if it would be okay because I was interested in what was happening up there. They said that I was fine where I was. They did not have a particular problem. I was conscious of safety and not worsening their difficult task but I am afraid the Minister's logic is fundamentally flawed. It seems to me that she is saying that we want to manage the burning better by extending the season. This comes after last year, when we had massive wildfires in Galway and elsewhere, which went from bogs on to forest, and burned and threatened houses. Our problem is that the traditional sense that people want to burn for scientific management of upland moors to get heather growth is not the reality of the world we are in.
We do not even have the farmers, the man and woman power, to manage in that very careful way what such a burning programme would be. The reality is that we have massive wildfires occurring in March, and to extend the season into that month is going to make it much easier for people to burn in March and for that to be in the public consciousness. That is what is going to happen. To dress that up as an advancement of heritage is illogical.