Seanad debates

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

5:55 pm

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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Cuirim céad fáilte roimh an Aire agus táim thar a bheith buíoch dó as teacht isteach ar an cheist seo. Ceist í seo faoi chapaill, ceist atá ag tarraingt go leor cainte i nGaillimh le tamall anuas, idir an chathair agus an contae.

As I have outlined to the Minister previously, stray horses in Galway city and county have been the subject of a lot of debate in recent times, particularly at the joint policing committees of the city and county and in other forums in the area. I tabled my motion in order to get a handle on the situation in Galway and nationally, if possible. The matter was debated in a fair amount of detail when we discussed the Animal Health and Welfare Bill. I commend the Minister's commitment to the health and welfare of stray animals.

A recent meeting of the joint policing committee in Galway was attended by Mr. Eugene Cummins, director of services who deals with the issue in Galway. He astounded us with the information that €212,700 will be spent this year as a result of the neglect of horses in the county. I know that a similar issue pertains in the city. I believe the cost is due to a number of different factors. It has been indicated that people from certain ethnic backgrounds have an issue with regard to the welfare of horses, but I believe the problem is much broader than that. People who bought horses during the good times but are not now in a position to keep them leave the animals to stray. Stray animals have caused many issues in the city and county. Obviously the health and welfare of animals is the biggest issue, but stray horses also pose a danger to local communities.

At that same meeting, Mr. Cummins gave us another figure. He stated that 98% of the horses seized by the county council were not chipped and did not have equine passports, which makes it difficult to trace their owners. Many changes have been made to legislation in recent times. However, €212,700 is a large amount of money and must be an even greater expense on the State. I am not sure if Galway is a particularly expensive county when it comes to this issue.

I sought clarification from the director of services on the day of the meeting. I asked him whether the money came out of the coffers of the local authority or whether it could be claimed back from the Department. My understanding from what the Minister said previously was that local authorities could claim it back from the Department. He might also indicate whether that has happened in the case of Galway City Council.

We all come from the same place and want to respect horse culture and traditions. We certainly want to facilitate, in any way possible, communities who have such a culture. However, that must be managed and done in a regulated and responsible manner. Above all, the safety, health and welfare of the animals must come first. We need to work on a cross-agency basis at local level in conjunction with the Department to ensure this work is done properly. Policing and passports for animals is also an issue. That is why I want to know how much has been spent in these areas and what can be done to eliminate the difficulties in the area.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Minister, Department of Agriculture, the Marine and Food; Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I was anxious to come here to answer the question myself because this is a serious matter. The issue costs a lot of money and resources but it is one that I, as a Minister, am personally committed to. We need to change attitudes towards the welfare of horses among some communities in Ireland and we are taking action to ensure that happens at present.

Rather than read my answer, which the Senator will receive anyway, let me give some figures and commentary. The first year the Senator asked about was 2011. In 2011, we gave just over €2.7 million to local authorities, which claimed for the seizure of fewer than 3,000 horses in the year. In 2012, the sum was €2.2 million, or just under that figure, and 2,969 horses were seized. So far this year we have spent about €1.8 million and exactly 3,288 horses have been seized across all county council areas.

We have acted, and are acting, in a way that is consistent with the Control of Horses Act 1996. The legislation allows my Department to work with local authorities and pays them the cost of dealing with stray horses. Since then there have been more regulations and legislation, which has led to a more focused response to the issue of stray horses, or horses that are vulnerable to potential welfare issues. We have the Animal Health and Welfare Bill, which we debated for many hours in the House. We now have regulations that require horse identification in the form of a microchip and passport. Horse owners now have an obligation to have a registered equine address for their animals in order for them to be deemed the legal owner. That provision, combined with the Control of Horses Act 1996, allows us to take a more comprehensive approach towards dealing with stray horses.

This evening I want to send a clear signal to people. We are approaching the issue from one perspective only - the welfare of animals.

If my Department deems that horses are at risk of being abused or having their welfare compromised, we will act. We have been acting across the country in partnership with local authorities, consistent with the legislation, and in some cases with the Garda. For example, last week in Cork we seized 82 horses in an operation co-ordinated with the Garda, vets and Cork City Council. The horses are now impounded and their former owners can claim them back if they can show they have a passport for them and an equine-registered address where they can put them to be looked after. If they cannot show these, we will not give the horses back because we do not believe it would be in the interest of the horses' welfare. We now have the legislation to back up our position. We had an unfortunate revolving-door system whereby horses were being confiscated by local authorities for all the right reasons only to re-enter the system on being reclaimed by their owners. This was crazy and the unfortunate victims were the horses themselves. We are now going to put a stop to that.

If it is the case that 98% of horses seized in County Galway this year had no identification in the form of a microchip and passport, we will microchip them. One will not be able to reclaim them unless one accepts full responsibility for their ownership, pays for their identification documentation and shows proof of an equine-registered address for them to go to. In other words, the days of allowing horses to roam across publicly owned land, NAMA-owned land or abandoned development land are over. We will be starting to confiscate horses from such areas if we believe their welfare is likely to be or is currently being compromised.

With regard to the horses confiscated in Cork, for example, eight had to be put down because of welfare concerns. Two of them may have been claimed back and we are seeking to re-home a large proportion of the others. We are having some success in that regard, which is great. Ireland is a horse-loving country, as is the United Kingdom, and a considerable number of people are willing to take horses on a compassionate basis and put them out to grass. However, we need to be realistic about how we deal with this issue. I suspect that by the end of this year, we will have spent over €3 million on horse seizures with local authorities. The Senator can say to the county manager in Galway that we will, of course, work with him as long as he can show and guarantee an efficient management system associated with the seizure of horses. A number of local authorities are now working together to have more efficiency in the system, which is why there is an increase in the number of seizures and a reduction in the overall cost, although costs this year will be higher because the number of seizures will be much higher.

My first concern is the welfare of the animals. I am obliged to do what I can to guarantee and protect the welfare of animals, regardless of who owns them. We have an animal welfare hotline number, 1850 211990. If people have concerns about the welfare of horses or any other animals, I want to hear about it. The telephone number is the same welfare number people used during the fodder crisis. We will act on reported cases. If there are horse owners who feel that, for whatever reason, they do not have sufficient resources, land or fodder to feed animals over the winter months, we need to hear about it. We will intervene and I will provide a budget to do so. We will change the way in which horses in some parts of Ireland have been treated.

I do not want to hear anything about tradition as an excuse for compromising welfare. I want to see us proactively examining ways in which we can support communities that may not have access to land, but which may have a very strong traditional link with horses. This needs to be done in a regulated, supervised and controlled manner to ensure we look after the welfare of the animals first and foremost. In the absence of that, we will act and are acting. There is growing evidence to suggest we are taking this more seriously as the months go by.

6:05 pm

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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An bhfuil an Seanadóir sásta?

Photo of Trevor Ó ClochartaighTrevor Ó Clochartaigh (Sinn Fein)
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Táim thar a bheith sásta. That was a very comprehensive answer and I appreciate it. I concur with almost everything the Minister said. Can I take from his figures that he and his Department would consider supporting a cross-agency approach to people from groups such as the Traveller community who have a tradition of keeping horses? Does he believe that, where appropriate, areas could be set up in places such as Galway where the tradition could be practised and where horses could be kept safely? Could it not be done in a regulated manner with people taking responsibility for the horses they own?

Photo of Denis O'DonovanDenis O'Donovan (Fianna Fail)
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The Senator is broadening the question.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Minister, Department of Agriculture, the Marine and Food; Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I would really like to see that happen but I cannot pay for it. My job under the Control of Horses Act is to provide the finance to allow local authorities to deal with stray horses. However, I strongly encourage local authorities to try to find the resources to allow for managed settings to permit the Traveller community, in particular, to interact with and own horses. Its members have a strong emotional connection with horses. It is a powerful connection but it is not an excuse to allow for the welfare of animals to be compromised. When stray horses are vulnerable, we will act. We will insist on the regulations being abided by in terms of the microchipping of and issuing of passports for horses and knowing the addresses where they are kept. This is now a requirement under EU regulations and Irish law. Following the passage of the Animal Health and Welfare Bill, there is also a responsibility on animal owners to look after the welfare of their animals, be those owners farmers, pet owners in an urban environment or members of a minority community. We will enforce the regulations and send out a very strong and clear signal that owning an animal is not only a privilege but also a responsibility. Of course, I would like to see local authorities assisting communities that want to own horses, but this has to be in the context of looking after the welfare of those animals and abiding by the regulations.

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit go dtí an Teach. Regeneration is great and has certainly helped communities. The most recent glowing example of regeneration's potential is in the Ballymun area of Dublin. The residents of Ballymun will benefit and are benefiting enormously from it. It is said that one cannot make an omelette without breaking some eggs, but sometimes there are eggs within the community that are too precious to be broken. One is a community group that has been operating in the Ballymun area for over 30 years, Dogs Aid. Not alone has it a proud tradition of caring for and looking after dogs but it also provides a very valuable resource to low-paid families and provides support to their pets, sometimes free of charge but in the majority of instances for a very low cost.

As part of regeneration in Ballymun, an area called Balbutcher Lane has effectively ceased to exist. That is where Dogs Aid had its centre and clinic; it is where it looked after the dogs. Unfortunately, the organisation is now homeless and has been operating from the back of a van with a battery-operated generator for the past three weeks. I am sure the Minister can appreciate that, during the recent inclement weather, that has not been satisfactorily from the perspective of the volunteers, animals or those who bring their animals.

Ballymun Garda station was closed as part of the Government's policy of streamlining Garda stations and channelling resources in a more efficient way. I understand the OPW is in charge of the building. It would be an ideal building in which to house Dogs Aid, even on a temporary basis.

The Minister needs to consider what benefits the community and look at organisations that have proven themselves and lasted the test of time as being ones that are there for the genuine betterment of the community.

As was stated in the previous Adjournment matter, animals are precious but they also bring with them responsibilities. The responsibility for animal welfare does not only reside with the individuals who own them. As a State, we have a responsibility to ensure that we provide the structure where animals can be treated properly.

I hope that what is a sensible solution to a problem that has presented itself as a result of progress is something that the Minister's colleagues in the OPW will take on board and that we will see Dogs Aid in Ballymun getting a temporary home in the disused Garda station.

6:15 pm

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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I thank Senator Conway for bringing this matter to the attention of the Oireachtas and assure him that the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, will be made aware of his comments directly.

The property in question is leased by the OPW from Dublin City Council. It was originally leased from the local authority in 1972 for use as a Garda station. Following the completion of the more modern Garda station in Ballymun in August 2008, the property was vacated. The OPW is in consultation with the local authority with a view to surrendering the lease.

Any decision on the future use of this property is a matter for Dublin City Council.

On the State's property assets, the Government is committed to reforming property asset management in the public service to ensure value for the taxpayer. The stated policy for closed Garda stations is to identify, first, whether other State bodies, including Departments and the wider public sector, have a use for them. If no State requirement is identified, the OPW will consider disposing of the property on the open market in order to generate revenue for the Exchequer.

If a decision is taken not to dispose of a particular property, the OPW will consider community involvement, subject to the receipt of an appropriate business case which would indicate that the community or voluntary group has the means to insure, maintain and manage the property and there is no cost to the Exchequer in the short, medium or long term.

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister of State, Deputy O'Dowd, for a factual and comprehensive reply.

It would be extremely helpful to Dogs Aid in Ballymun if the Minister of State with responsibility for the OPW, Deputy Brian Hayes, were to let it be known to the city manager that it would be his wish that Dogs Aid would be accommodated here on a temporary basis until such time as it can find more suitable long-term accommodation. I suggest a letter or communication from Deputy Brian Hayes's office to the city manager. Obviously, the Minister of State does not have power to direct the city manager to do it but I am sure the city manager would take seriously a proposal from the Minister of State at the Department of Finance with responsibility for the OPW.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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I will bring the Senator's views to the direct attention of the Minister of State. If they have not already done so, it might be useful if the community groups, the support services or those who are interest and support Dogs Aid would so communicate.

Photo of Martin ConwayMartin Conway (Fine Gael)
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I will advise them to do that. I thank Deputy O'Dowd.