Wednesday, 20 January 2016
Heritage Bill 2016: Second Stage
I thank the House for facilitating a Second Stage debate on the Heritage Bill 2016 today. Although the Bill is called the Heritage Bill, it is not confined to dealing with heritage matters but introduces important changes across a range of areas.
By way of summary, Part 2 of the Bill deals with amendments to the Canals Act 1986, to ensure there Is a robust framework for the making of by-laws to regulate the use of boats on canals, and the management of canals and canal property. These changes will enhance the ability of Waterways Ireland to manage waterways for the benefit of all users.
Part 3 of the Bill introduces important changes to the cutting and burning of vegetation and provides clarification of the powers of authorised officers under the Wildlife Acts.As a result of the recommendations contained in the report of the critical review of the Heritage Council in 2012, which was approved by Government, Part 4 of the Bill provides for the amendment of the Heritage Act 1995. The proposed changes refine the role of the Heritage Council, allowing for a more streamlined board structure and provide for greater engagement with local communities. I am happy to go through the Bill in more detail.
The amendments to the Canals Act 1986 are primarily enabling provisions to allow Waterways Ireland to make by-laws to regulate boating on canals and to manage the use of canals. Waterways Ireland was established in 1999 under the British-Irish Agreement Act 1999. It is charged with the management, maintenance, development and restoration of Ireland's inland waterways, principally for recreation purposes. Waterways Ireland manages 1,000 km of waterways in Ireland and Northern Ireland, including the Shannon navigations, the Erne system, the lower Bann, the Royal Canal and the Grand Canal, the Barrow navigations and the Shannon-Erne waterway. Our waterways are a wonderful public resource which make a vital contribution to tourism by attracting people from around Ireland and from abroad. There are over 14,000 registered boat owners on the seven waterways that are managed by Waterways Ireland. The proposed changes will allow Waterways Ireland to proactively manage the Royal and Grand canals and the Barrow navigations.
Sections 2,5 and 6 are technical amendments which include updating ministerial titles and changing references to the Commissioner of Public Works to Waterways Ireland and codifying the changes made to the Canals Act 1986 by the Maritime Safety Act 2005 and other legislation. Section 3 substitutes section 5 of the Canals Act 1986 and restates the provisions of section 5 of the Canals Act 1986 defining the general duties of Waterways Ireland and of Córas Iompair Éireann. In this section, Waterways Ireland is being substituted for the Commissioner of Public Works.
Section 4 substitutes section 7 and section 7(a), inserted by section 56 of the Maritime Safety Act 2005, of the Canals Act 1986 and creates new provisions for the making of by-laws to regulate the use of boats on the canals and canal property. More specifically, section 7 provides for: the regulation of the type or class of boat which may be used on the canals; the issue of permits and licences to regulate the use of boats on the canals and canal property; the closing to navigation of any part of the canals; the regulation of berths and moorings and the placing of buoys on the canals or other canal property; the regulation and care of animals on the canals and other canal property; and the charging and fixing of fees, tolls and charges.
New sections are created at 7B to 7E, inclusive. Section 7B provides for the appointment and powers of authorised officers for the regulation and management of the canals and canal property. Section 7C provides for the issuing of search warrants by a judge of the District Court in certain circumstances. Section 7D contains specific provisions on the service of directions. Section 7E provides that proceedings for an offence under the Canals Act may be prosecuted summarily by Waterways Ireland and may be instituted within 12 months from the date of offence.
Section 5 provides for a number of other miscellaneous amendments which are mostly of a technical nature, including: updating the references to the titles of the various Ministers in the Act to reflect the current position; changing to Waterways Ireland those references to the Commissioner of Public Works in respect of functions transferred to Waterways Ireland under the British-Irish Agreement Acts 1999-2005; and providing for the deletion of section 13, which expired three years after the vesting day. Together, the former provide for a more modern, fit-for-purpose regulatory framework - underpinned by legislation - which will allow Waterways Ireland to manage the canals efficiently and effectively and in all of our interests.
Part 3 contains important changes to the Wildlife Acts. Specifically, section 8 relates to burning and hedge cutting. Section 40 of the Wildlife Acts currently prohibits the cutting, grubbing, burning or destruction of vegetation, with certain strict exemptions, during the closed period from 1 March to 31 August each year. Vegetation such as that found in hedgerows and scrub is an important wildlife habitat and needs to be managed in the interests of both farming and biodiversity. In that regard, I decided that there should be a review of the current legislative provisions to ensure that they remain both effective and balanced.
Stakeholders had sought an opportunity to input their views on the operation of section 40. I announced a consultation process in November 2014 which provided that opportunity. I received almost 200 submissions from various representative and Government bodies, elected representatives and members of the public. The submissions received ranged from detailed papers from stakeholders to individuals expressing support for one outcome or another.
-----comprising officials from my Department, to consider the submissions received and to report back to me with a range of proposals. The changes that are included in section 8 of the Bill, to be introduced on a pilot two year basis, will allow for a more managed approach to the vegetation management issues which regularly arise. The pilot measures include allowing managed hedge cutting, under strict criteria, during August to help ensure issues such as overgrown hedges impacting on roads can be tackled. Power will also be given to me, as Minister, to allow for controlled burning in certain areas around the country, to be specified by regulation, during March, should it be necessary, for example, due to adverse weather conditions. These two measures are designed to introduce a limited amount of flexibility to help with land management and to ensure that a fair and balanced system is in place, while ensuring the protection of biodiversity.
It is important to underline to the House these provisions will operate on a pilot basis for two years. I am keenly aware that we must ensure that these new provisions should not adversely impact upon our fauna and flora-----
For that reason, any burning or cutting will be subject to very strict conditions and restrictions which will be specified in statutory regulations to protect fauna and flora. In addition, my Department will monitor activity under these provisions and an assessment of the impacts will be carried out before any decision is taken on continuing these measures beyond the pilot phase. In that context, my Department will work towards gathering the data required to underpin such a decision. This will include data in regard to bird nesting and the level and impact of cutting and burning. I consider that these provisions provide a pragmatic approach which will help to address some of the challenges faced by those living In rural areas. I want to strike a balance. While hedgerows and upland areas are very important in terms of wildlife habitat, they also need to be managed in the interests of both farming and biodiversity. I also intend to launch a public awareness process so that all stakeholders, including local authorities, landowners and members of the public are fully informed on the restrictions on hedge cutting and burning.
Following legal advice on the issue I have also taken the opportunity, in section 10 of the Bill, to clarify the powers of authorised officers of my Department and An Garda Síochána under the Wildlife Acts. National Parks and Wildlife Service officials of my Department and An Garda Síochána are authorised officers in respect of investigating breaches of the various provisions of the Wildlife Acts. These new provisions clarify their powers in this regard and brings them very much into line with how the powers of authorised persons under the more modern European Communities (Birds and Natural Habitats) Regulations 2011 are expressed and set out in the law.
Section 11 updates the penalties for offences under the Wildlife Acts and introduces fixed payment notices for certain offences under the Wildlife Acts. Finally, in section 9 there are some minor amendments to the wording of a subsection in section 40 of the Wildlife Acts updating the collective citation for fisheries legislation and replacing the references to the Central Fisheries Board which is now Inland Fisheries Ireland.
Part 4 deals with amendments to the Heritage Act 1995. The amendments proposed in Part 4 are based on the recommendations of the critical review of the Heritage Council, which was carried out by my Department in the context of the public service reform plan. Section 12(1)(a) refocuses the activities and functions of the Heritage Council, with particular emphasis on engagement with communities and local authorities. Section 12(1)(b) introduces the non-remuneration of members of the board, while continuing their entitlement to expenses incurred in discharge of their duties as board members. Section 12(1)(c) provides for a reduction in the size of the board of the Heritage Council to between eight and ten members, excluding the chairperson.It ensures a gender balance by having a minimum requirement of four females and four male members and reduces the quorum necessary to five, including the chairperson, to reflect the smaller board. It removes the requirement for the Heritage Council to establish statutory standing committees on wildlife, archaeology, architectural heritage and inland waterways. In general, these changes will allow for a more effective and efficient operation of the Heritage Council and a more streamlined approach to how it carries out its primary functions.
I will reiterate that the changes proposed to the Canals Act are mainly enabling provisions to provide for a robust regulatory framework for the use of boats on canals. They are designed to bring clarity and enhance the management of the canals. I will take this opportunity to acknowledge the work of Waterways Ireland, in particular the way it has responded in challenging conditions in recent months.
Regarding hedge cutting and the burning of vegetation, the changes are designed to introduce a limited amount of flexibility and to ensure that a fair and balanced system is in place while protecting biodiversity. The co-operation of all stakeholders is essential in the successful protection and management of our natural environment.
I acknowledge the good work of the Heritage Council and its commitment to the review process, which led to the proposed changes. I am pleased to have had the opportunity to outline the provisions of the Bill and I look forward to hearing the Senators' views on the Bill's contents. I commend the Bill to the House.
Tá fáilte mhór roimh an Aire, atá anseo inniu chun páirt a ghlacadh i ndíospóireacht ar an Bhille tábhachtach seo. Tá a fhios agam go bhfuil sí faoi bhrú i mbliana agus go bhfuil go leor oibre idir lámha aici le linn chomóradh 1916, agus guím gach rath uirthi san obair sin. I acknowledge the Minister's workload this year, given the commemorations. I wish her well with that.
The Bill is short, but important for a number of reasons. A welcome review was conducted of the Heritage Council. Based on the 2011 Government plan to re-evaluate State agencies, the organisation's effectiveness and efficiencies were examined. Two options were on the table: merge the Heritage Council with another body or leave it as a stand-alone organisation. Opting for the latter was the right decision. It is an important organisation and can play a pivotal role. Perhaps this year is significant for a number of reasons, but the main one is the celebration of our heritage. The council will play a key role in that regard. I agree with the Minister that its role should knit more closely with local authorities' in particular. My local authority has a heritage officer, who does excellent work. A closer knit between local authorities and the Heritage Council would be welcome. The council could also play a more active role in engaging with schools, in particular primary schools. This suggestion could be taken on board, although budgetary constraints on the council may affect it.
The other legislation that is being tidied up includes the Canals Act 1986. Fianna Fáil will support the passage of this Bill through the Seanad. I have received correspondence, particularly in recent days, regarding the proposed changes to section 40 of the Wildlife Act 1976. Senator Norris made one or two comments. People contacted me about this issue yesterday and today. I have read some of the submissions, including those made during the public consultation process. That process was the right approach to take, as the submissions evaluated by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht highlighted other aspects for consideration, for example, road safety, including the safety of cyclists and runners. I run and walk up and down many country roads with overgrown hedges and so on. They pose dangers.
Another dimension is the agricultural one. A submission was made by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in this regard. Rural Ireland has many hedges and we need to protect the wildlife that live within those, but a level of common sense must be adopted instead of rigid and strict guidelines. The Department's submission pointed out that, although an element of road safety legislation had put the onus for cutting hedges on landowners, this was not possible because of the constraints applied by the Wildlife Act. One Act was working against another. This has to be tidied up.
I am unsure as to what level of consultation or what data will be used in forming the regulations, so the Minister might explain today or during later Stages. Some submissions were made by rural councillors, for example, Mr. Séamus Cosaí Fitzgerald of the Minister's own party in Kerry and Mr. Brendan Cronin, also in Kerry. Councillor Michael Gleeson made a good submission. Councillors Joe Fox, Martina Kinane and, in County Kerry, Johnny and Danny Healy-Rae made submissions, as did Councillor Paddy Meade. These were cross-party councillors from rural Ireland making submissions in support of extending the cutting season for hedgerows and so forth.
I come from a rural part of the country in County Donegal that has many farmers who are restricted from cutting back hedges. This is raising road safety concerns. The council is statutorily allowed to cut hedges, but the ultimate onus is on the landowner, not the local authority. Tidying up this legislation is important. Some of the organisations that have raised concerns have done so for valid reasons. We must protect our wildlife. I tried to find data on the impact of cutting hedges over a longer period - 1 March to 31 August - but was unable to do so. Flexibility and common sense are required. We will support that approach and will not impose constraints on the Bill's passage through the Seanad.
I welcome the Minister to the House and am delighted to have an opportunity to make a contribution on this Bill. It is a sensitive issue for many and I understand the concerns raised by people and interest groups. When Senator Ó Domhnaill referred to the hedges on his many runs around the country, Senator Whelan asked whether anyone had ever heard of a runner being damaged by a hedge.
Senator Norris was the jumper. I was the runner.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute on this Bill, which will implement the recommendations arising from the 2012 critical review of the Heritage Council. It provides for certain sensitive matters relating to our waterways, wildlife and the Heritage Council. It amends the Canals Act 1986, creating provisions facilitating the making of by-laws for the regulation of the use of the canals and other canal property. This is welcome. It also provides for the regulation of cutting and burning of vegetation at certain times of the year and concerns the powers of the authorised officers under the Wildlife Acts.The Bill also concerns the function of the Heritage Council and the structure of the board in its current form.
The amendments to the Canal Act 1986 are contained in Part 2 of the Bill, as the Minister mentioned. These concern the duties of Waterways Ireland, which is taking over responsibility from the Commissioner of Public Works. All existing references to the Canals Act 1986 will change to references to Waterways Ireland. The Bill provides for the making of certain by-laws for the care, maintenance and control of the canals and the regulation of canal use. This is something we very much welcome, when one sees all sorts of different boats or carriages going up and down the canals. We also welcome the amendments concerning the appointment and the powers of the authorised officers, who will be able to take action. I do not wish to refer to all sections of the Heritage Bill, because they will be replaced in this new Act and are only of a technical nature.
Part 3 of the Bill amends section 40 of the Wildlife Acts in relation to the cutting, digging up and burning of vegetation on uncultivated land. I can understand the wildlife people, because when one travels around the country, and even in the rural part of Dublin where I live, it is lovely to see all the birds during the spring, through the autumn and even into the winter. Currently there is a closed season from 1 March to 31 August for the burning of vegetation. This allows for the protection of bird life during the nesting season in early spring and the protection of vegetation and wildlife habitats during the summer months of growth and reproduction. In 2015, a review of burning and cutting controls was put to public consultation by the National Parks and Wildlife Service. In its report, the importance of wildlife habitats, hedgerows and scrub was acknowledged. It was also said that they need to be managed in the interests of farming and biodiversity.
There are two sides to the story when it comes to hedgerows. Landowners and their representatives had often stated that the closed period was too inflexible and should be amended to take account of land management issues, which we can understand. The Bill introduces a two-year pilot period. I am delighted that the Minister has taken that into consideration and she will make strict regulations permitting the burning of vegetation during this specified time or at times in March and in specified areas of the State. In addition, permission will be given to landowners to cut, grub or destroy vegetation in hedges or ditches during August subject to strict restrictions or conditions specified in the regulations. The Bill also clarifies the powers of authorised officers, updates penalties for offences under the Wildlife Acts and provides for the introduction of fixed payment notices and associated matters.
The Heritage Bill 2016 proposes to refocus certain functions and activities of the Heritage Council, including how it engages with communities and public authorities, and it deals with the size and composition of the board and its remuneration. In Part 4 of the Bill, amendments are made to the 1995 Act, including the introduction of a stronger role for the Heritage Council, the removal of payment of remuneration to the council members, changes to its composition and quorum, and the removal of the obligation to establish specific standing committees. Currently, the Heritage Council is obliged to "co-operate with public authorities, educational bodies and other organisations and persons in the promotion of the functions of the Council". Section 12 of this Bill provides that it will now be a function of the council to "co-operate with, engage with, advise and support public authorities, local communities and persons in relation to the functions of the Council". Currently, members of the council and committees of the council are entitled to remuneration and allowances for expenses incurred by them. The Bill amends the entitlement to remuneration, whereby members of the council or its committees will now only be entitled to allowances for expenses and no remuneration will be paid, which must be welcomed. Other changes relating to the Heritage Council in the Bill reduce the number of board members to between eight and ten, excluding the Chair, and will address the issue of gender balance. It is proposed that there will be at least four gentlemen and four ladies on the board. It also reduces the quorum to five. The Bill removes the obligation on the council to set up standing committees on each of its areas of responsibility - namely, wildlife, archaeology, architectural heritage, and inland waterways - and refocuses a streamlined council, whose principal function is to facilitate the grant-aiding of heritage from various sources and engage with and support local government and communities in the capacity of building and support.
While many areas of sensitivity are involved here, and representations have been made to most of us in this House regarding the proposed changes to the Wildlife Act, I am happy that the Minister and her Department have given due consideration to putting in place a fair and balanced system while ensuring the protection of biodiversity. An assessment of the impacts will be carried out before any decision is made on continuing these measures beyond the pilot period.
I would like to address two issues first. One was raised by the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland, which has complained about a poor consultation process, despite what the Minister said. It made a number of other points, but I am sure it has also made them to the Minister. I want to concentrate on section 40, but Inland Fisheries Ireland has also contacted me. It approves of paragraph 40(2)(d) about the management of noxious weeds, but suggests it should be expanded to cover invasive plant species. I ask the Minister to consider that point, because there is a serious problem with invasive plant species.
The real problem that concerns me is the fact that the Bill will give the Minister the power to make regulations to permit the burning of vegetation during a specified time or times in March in specified areas of the State and, in addition, to allow landowners or their agents to cut, grub or destroy vegetation in any hedge or ditch during August. These are very serious matters. In a press statement, the Minister discussed the submissions received. She also referred to them in her speech. However, she failed to mention that the vast majority of them were opposed to section 40 and they were from the most concerned areas - from Birdwatch Ireland, An Taisce and so on. All these groups opposed section 40. This is just a gesture for the farmers, coming up to an election. That is all it is. It is perfectly naked.
The Minister said "[m]anaged hedge cutting will be allowed, under strict criteria, during August to help ensure issues such as overgrown hedges impacting on roads can be tackled". For God's sake, can they not be done at any time of the year? I was the person in this House who raised the issue of the danger to pedestrians and road traffic from overgrown hedges because I was briefed on it by somebody who was involved in a serious accident, so I know all about it, but it does not have to be done in August. It is laughable to think of it being done in August when the farmers are harvesting. They are busy at work. Why do they need to do it then, which is right in the middle of the nesting season?
There are a number of threatened birds. We have already been up before the European court and we have been found guilty. The Minister actually quoted section 40 as a protection in that case, but the European court found it was not strong enough and was not sufficient. I do not know what the Minister has to say about that. Then she has the amazing gall to quote biodiversity. How in the name of God is the Minister encouraging biodiversity by pulling down the hedgerows that are full of biodiversity, not only in terms of birds' nests, but also seeds, plants, and all that kind of stuff? Every survey has shown that more intensive hedgerow cutting leads to a catastrophic decline of up to 75% in species of berry and so on, and also in bird life.How this can be described as biodiversity is beyond me. We already have section 40, which allows for a wide range of exemptions, so I wonder why the Minister is introducing this. There is already a catalogue of exemptions from this restriction. They allow for: the destroying, in the ordinary course of agriculture or forestry, of any vegetation growing on or in any ditch or hedge; the cutting or grubbing of isolated bushes or clumps of gorse, furze or whin or the mowing of isolated growths of fern in the ordinary course of agriculture; the cutting, grubbing or destroying of vegetation in the course of any works being duly carried out for reasons of public health or safety by a Minister of the Government or a body established or regulated by or under that statute; the clearance of vegetation in the course of fisheries development; the destroying of any noxious weeds; the clearance of vegetation in the course of road or other construction; the removal or destruction of vegetation required by a notice served by the Minister under section 62(1) of the Wildlife Act of 1946. All of these exemptions are already in place. What is to prevent the Minister implementing them properly? They are in the targeted areas where it is necessary. It is not a type of wholesale unlimited destruction of the natural environment.
The closed dates for burning and cutting are based, in a generic way, on what the Department calls "the generally recognised nesting and breeding period for wild birds". In fact, there is a strong case for the precautionary principle to be introduced and for an extension of the closed period to protect early nesting and breeding species in the nest building period, not least in the face of climate change which is already affecting the situation here. A number of birds nest well into August. I refer, in particularly, to the yellowhammer, which nests into September. In the case of burning controls on ground nesting birds, the hen harrier nests well into September. The exemptions are framed so broadly, for example, for public health and safety, and appear to be regulated so poorly that they arguably provide almost a carte blanchefor cutting during the closed period already, without any tampering. I am extremely concerned about this.
With regard to burning, I remember as a child going to the strand in Sandymount to watch Howth burning after the farmers had set a torch to the furze. It was always very exciting. However, fire is estimated to have destroyed 16,000 hectares of land in Ireland in 2011. Despite it being illegal, Coillte has reported that in the space of one week in April 2010, approximately 1,500 areas of forest had been burnt, putting properties, wildlife and habitats at risk. This is what we have already. Research carried out on 100 peatland sites in Ireland indicated that burning was evident in 19% of the sites surveyed with severe damage evident in 8% of the cases.
I have also received submissions from An Taisce, which is opposed to this. In less than one day it had 4,000 signatures on a petition against these measures. Hedgerows are critical to our landscape, which is an important aspect of our tourism. They are important for land protection, including management of soil erosion, land drains and flood management. They are also critical to biodiversity. How can the Minister continue to mention biodiversity in this Bill, when it is mentioned so often in the situation referred to by An Taisce? Seanad Éireann is expected in the run up to an election to accept a pig in a poke with this Bill. We are expected to pass provisions allowing for effective wholesale cutting, grubbing and so forth during the month of August, when many native birds are still nesting, without seeing any associated restricting regulations or any guarantee that such restrictions will be provided. We are expected to pass the Bill allowing for burning in March without knowing how the areas where it will happen will be selected or how extensive it will be. The Bill contains a sunset clause of two years but it has an entirely open-ended reactivation clause, so that clause is of no use whatever. We are told it is a pilot but there is no mechanism to assess it. Where is the mechanism? If it is supposed to be a pilot project, surely there should be some provision for assessing the impact.
We are expected to accept section 8(2) of the Bill which provides for wholesale cutting, grubbing and so forth without any clarity about the restrictions, the basis for any restrictions and no guarantee that the proposed regulations will ever be introduced. By passing this Bill, we will provide for no protection in August, contrary to expert evidence based on the submissions. I note that the Minister quoted no scientific evidence. However, the organisations that have briefed me have provided extensive scientific information. For example, the British Trust for Ornithology provides information on egg laying dates for breeding birds. This is the most reliable scientific evidence available, since we do not have similar recording of egg laying and nesting activities in Ireland. We are seeking such data from the Minister.
I return again to the issue of biodiversity. I have to laugh when a Minister, who is introducing provisions for massive hedge cutting and almost unrestricted burning, talks about biodiversity. She refers to grubbing. This grubby little Bill is grubbing out the possibility of biodiversity and is certainly not enhancing it. I know it will be passed. That is the mathematics of politics. However, it will not be passed without my strong objections to it. They are reasoned objections backed by scientific evidence, which the Minister has failed to produce. It is a sop to the farming vote for the forthcoming election.
I welcome the Minister and thank her for bringing forward this Bill. I will not be as eloquent or, indeed, get as worked up as Senator Norris, but I will focus on three general areas of the Bill that are important to the heritage of Ireland - canals, wildlife and the Heritage Council.
First, the provisions in Part 4 relate to the Heritage Council. The council was established to identify, protect, preserve and enhance our national heritage by focusing on areas such as national monuments, architectural objects, archaeological objects, flora, fauna, wildlife, seascapes and parks, to educate the public on these issues and to promote employment and tourism in these areas. It also seeks to encourage the appreciation of our national heritage by members of the public. All Members will agree that this is important work. Our national heritage is key to our identity as a nation and protecting and promoting it are vital. As such, it is crucial that this work is done in as efficient and effective a manner as possible. I welcome the aspects of the Bill which seek to streamline and strengthen the Heritage Council.
The critical review of the work of the Heritage Council, which was carried out as part of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin's, public service reform plan, made a number of recommendations that are to be implemented in the Bill. The report proposed two possible options - the abolition of the council or to streamline it. As the work of the council is so important, I believe that the second option, which the Minister is seeking to implement with this Bill, is the best way forward. I welcome that board members will no longer receive payment for serving on the board and that they will now only receive remuneration to cover their expenses. The number of board members is to be reduced while, crucially, maintaining the gender balance. That is welcome. I am also pleased that the council will now have to engage in a more effective and productive way with local authorities and local communities.
The second area of the Bill I wish to discuss is Part 3, which seeks to amend parts of the Wildlife Act to allow for the cutting of hedgerows in August, on which we have heard all manner of debate, and particularly for an additional month for the burning of vegetation in March. These months were previously excluded to protect bird life during nesting season and to protect vegetation and habitats during months of growth and reproduction. I appreciate that a wide public consultation was undertaken before these changes were proposed. I also appreciate that it is necessary to maintain a balance between the protection of our wildlife and agricultural interests. However, like other Members, I have received correspondence from a number of environmental agencies and organisations with concerns about parts of the Bill, such as An Taisce, BirdWatch Ireland, the Irish Wildlife Trust and the Hedge Laying Association of Ireland, who have come together to oppose these measures. They believe the Bill will have a serious impact on a range of wildlife species. On that, Senator Norris and I agree. There is an online petition on the issue and at the last glance I took today it had over 7,000 signatures. However, I accept what the Minister has said about having taken the concerns of the organisations into account. That is important and welcome. I ask her to take those concerns into account as the Bill moves forward.
I welcome the Minister to the House. I agree with what Senator Norris said about the wildlife section of the Bill, but I would emphasise its other two parts, namely, canals and the Heritage Council. We have our Minister, Minister Carál Ní Chuilín who will look after the same activities in Northern Ireland, and Dawn Livingstone who is the chief executive of Waterways Ireland. Gender balance has been extremely well achieved.
I will discuss some of the sections that concern me. Section 4(c) refers to the closing to navigation of any part of the canals and section 4(g) to the opening to navigation of any parts of the canals. I would put more emphasis on another part of the section. There are proposals to extend the Ulster Canal to the scout camp near Belturbet. I am sure the people of Clones agitate with the Minister to restore the canal.
Canals are linear parks and people like Dr. Ian Bath promoted that idea as the goal. They are not just for the boat people the Minister for State mentioned. They are a wider amenity. From reading the documentation, I understand Waterways Ireland costs about £50 million sterling a year and a large part of the emphasis seems to involve trying to bring in some money from boat users. Perhaps we should consider them in a wider context, not just Belturbet, Clones and so on, but places such as Klibeggan, Mountmellick and the Newry Canal.
The Northern Ireland report on waterways and their success notes that the Lagan towpath is visited by 1 million people a year. It is one of the most visited amenities. Some positive changes might be considered..
I refer to the property section and the representations made by the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland. It is concerned about authorised officers and people for whom boats are houses. The relevant section of the Bill states that authorised officers will need a search warrant to come into the part of the boat which is the residence, but how will we deal with situations where an entire vessel is a residence? There are concerns about that. A boat may not simply involve part of a very private dwelling; rather, the entire vessel could be a private dwelling. There is a need for communication on the concerns of the Inland Waterways Association of Ireland about the powers of the authorised officers. I gather it would prefer to deal with An Garda Síochána and further consultation. It regards 21 days as insufficient and wishes to see the period extended to 60 days.
The canal system is capable of significant development right through to Lough Neagh. The Newry canal and what is being done in Belfast were mentioned. We need to develop a better connection between the Royal Canal and Dublin Port, something that is referred to in the strategic plan for Waterways Ireland. Perhaps there could be Grand Canal access to the River Liffey. I see that in a very positive light.
The Bill is somewhat dismissive of what the Heritage Council has done. I understand half of the members, or at least a substantial number, take no fee at all, and if they do it would be a sum of €5,000. Making a gesture by taking away a relatively small fee and reducing the board from 14 to eight members seems to be a case of somebody somewhere wanting to teach the Heritage Council a lesson. It does valuable work and I am in favour of giving people a pat on the back and commending them.
The Bill proposes to delete the section that the council shall establish standing committees on wildlife, archaeology, architectural heritage and inland waterways and that it could have members which are not members of the council on those standing committees. I do not why we do not cherish the Heritage Council more. I see no great problem in the establishment of such sub-committees.
The work the Heritage Council has done in Kilkenny and increasing the appreciation of heritage and how it relates to educational bodies are things which I would broadly support. Its funding is being cut unnecessarily. I thank the Cathaoirleach for the extra time. I wish the Minister success in her endeavours in canals, wildlife and the work of the Heritage Council.
I welcome the Minister to the House to discuss this important Bill, which I also welcome.
I have an interest in two issues. I refer to the burning of overgrowth and commonages, in particular heather. Over the years mountains were under-grazed and there was a problem with heather growing too long. It had to be managed in a proper order. The fact that this will be reviewed in two years' time is good news. We can examine how it works out and introduce the scheme on a pilot basis. The burning of heather in the uplands is very important to control the growth. Once it is controlled and burned in a managed way, it will be of much more use to the animals that graze it, from a farming point of view, and wildlife.
We work very closely with people in commonage areas who are reintroducing grouse, in particular - I have an interest in this in Leitrim. The groups involved told us if heather is managed and burned in small areas, it will be of much more use to the grouse when they hatch and are being reared on the mountains afterwards. It will prevent heather from getting too long for sheep farmers and will also be of much more use to them. When heather is much too long, farmers are penalised and disqualified from certain payments, which we have seen in the past. From a farming point of view, it is very important that this is managed.
My colleagues have mentioned the dangers of overgrowth along the hedges on roadsides where people are walking. We must continue to encourage people to use the roadways to exercise more, but there is nothing as annoying when one is walking or running along the roadway as getting a slap of a branch on the side of face or a cut on a leg from a briar or whatever else. It is very important that overgrowth is cut as summer goes on, and August is the ideal time to do that. Last year, there were problems in my county, Leitrim, whereby a school bus had difficulty in travelling on a very narrow road. The mirrors on the bus were constantly broken and the driver refused to drive the bus because of the overgrowth which was damaging the vehicle, and the hedge had to be cut on a Saturday.
This is a very worthwhile Bill. It involves a pilot scheme which can be reviewed after two years. If any changes are needed after that, that will be possible.
I welcome the Minister to the House. Some time ago I had the pleasure of congratulating her on her work, in particular on 1 January at the flag raising ceremony and concert she laid on. I am afraid that today is not her finest hour. Like most Senators in this House, I have been contacted by people who have grave concerns about the Bill before the House today. I thank a colleague of mine in Cork, Councillor Marcia D'Alton, for her efforts regarding what I have about to say. She stated:
It is sadly ironic that the Heritage Bill is being debated in the Seanad today - Penguin Awareness Day. Penguins worldwide are facing extinction due to loss of habitat caused by human practices. And in Ireland, the numbers of so many upland birds... are exhibiting massive decline also because of loss of habitat caused by human practices.
There has been a large cry from the farming and other communities to extend the legally permissible burning season. It is true that our legal burning season in Ireland is very much shorter than it is, for example, in Scotland and England. The restrictions on burning were tightened in 2000, primarily to reflect concerns about the nesting season.
The letter continues to explain how, since 2000 and despite these restrictions, our uplands have continued to decline. An assessment prepared by the Government for the European Commission in 2013 found that the upland habitats were in a bad state. Many birds were breeding in upland habitats listed as areas of critical concern in respect of conservation.
The most sympathetic of considerations indicates that the current stricter controls on burning are simply not working. Why is this? It is because conservation of uplands is not simply about burning. Vegetation management in the uplands is critically linked to the biodiversity welfare of the uplands. Too much vegetation is as bad as too little vegetation. Traditionally, farmers, in particular, sheep farmers, were the caretakers of the uplands. Their sheep kept vegetation levels down, they burned in small areas regularly and vegetation recovery was possible and cyclical. Up to 2011, these farmers had the opportunity to be rewarded for such sensitive land management practices through the rural environment protection scheme, REPS. By 2011 REPS was done away with and replaced by the agri-environment options scheme. Under the scheme, assistance is provided by Teagasc to prepare a plan, but the plan focuses primarily on the restoration of over-grazed areas. It does not require a farm survey or offer any guidelines on when grazing should occur. It does not suggest measures to encourage co-operation between farmers with commonage. It does not include a burning plan.
The number of upland sheep farmers is in decline. They simply cannot make the same profits as lowland farmers. The work is difficult, especially for an ageing population. Many of these farmers depended on REPS to supplement their income, but the financial benefits under the AEOS are far smaller than under REPS. Since the number of upland farmers is in decline, the number of sheep is in decline as well. Therefore, vegetation is not kept as it would be otherwise.
Another significant issue is that farmers do not control unwanted invasive species on land under the single farm payment scheme. Penalties may occur, but some species regarded as invasive may act as valuable habitat for native birds and wildlife. When burning season opens, fewer farmers are trying to control higher vegetation on larger areas of upland during a shorter season. This leads to large uncontrolled burning. It is too hot, it targets the wrong species and it occurs over wide areas. There is a major detrimental impact on the wildlife, and not only birds. The practice encourages soil erosion, there is much added danger and the areas take a long time to recover.
We have a major balancing issue but it is not going to be resolved by revision of the heritage legislation today. All today's Bill does is permit the Minister to make regulations to extend the burning season. We badly need an improvement management system for the uplands with a genuine understanding of farm management issues and biodiversity issues. These are intimately related. The management system needs to be informed by a code of good practice for burning. This needs to be drawn up in conjunction with farmers and ecologists. I note we have a code of prescribed burning drawn up by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in 2011, but this is targeted towards facilitating the larger farmer.
The point being made by Councillor D'Alton is that the Bill is flawed and we should do everything we can to stop it. She makes reference to the Heritage Council. My colleague, Senator Barrett, has addressed this point today as well. She says that despite whatever protestations the Minister may make to the contrary, the council is very much the poor relation when it comes to funding. Funding from Government to the Heritage Council has been slashed by almost 90% since 2011. She fears that the changes proposed to the board structure and remuneration would further undermine the invaluable statutory function of the Heritage Council.
She said there are so many State boards that it is too difficult to count, yet how many of them have seen revisions similar to those proposed for the Heritage Council?
I thank the Minister for taking the time to listen to me. I hope she will take the points on board, not only those made by myself and my colleagues but those made by people involved in the wildlife area who have serious concerns about this Bill and where it is going.
I welcome the Minister to the House. With all due respect to her, however, I do not welcome the Bill and it does not enjoy my support. Indeed, it will not enjoy my support and I am minded to vote against it. I do not lay the charge at the door of the Minister but I call on her to ensure she does not leave this as her legacy. She should not allow this to be the last legislation she puts on the Statute Book before the Dáil is dissolved and we go to the country in a general election.
Serious issues are at stake. I have no wish to fall foul of the farming community but certainly I am crying foul today. The Minister, her officials and those behind this legislation cannot speak out of both sides of their mouths on this matter. The Minister cannot say that she is in favour of balance and biodiversity while introducing this Bill. Section 40 is an assault on the landscape and habitat. It is an assault on conservation, our wildlife and our natural heritage. I note that the Title of the Bill is rather innocuous - the Heritage Bill 2016. It is a Trojan horse for an attack on our heritage. It represents an assault on our natural heritage and landscape. No one in his right mind would extend the hedge-cutting, hedge-burning and scrub-burning season by a full two months while claiming to have any regard for wildlife, heritage, conservation or habitats. I strenuously oppose that section and I urge the Minister to reconsider it. It should be withdrawn and I hope it makes no further progress in this House. Moreover, I hope it makes no progress in the Lower House and that time betrays and delays it to the point where it falls with the Government and never sees the light of day again.
I live in the countryside. All the decent farmers I know respect the landscape, habitats and nature. They believe biodiversity is important for food production and the balance of nature. They know it is important for all other aspects of a sustainable lifestyle in the countryside, including those referred to previously, such as tourism and natural heritage, aspects which attracts so many visitors.
I am sick and tired of people speaking out of both sides of their mouths, talking about our natural heritage and how much they respect, love and value it. This is not valuing our natural heritage, wildlife, flora or fauna. Is the Minister honestly trying to tell me that the farmers of this country need two further months in the year to tend to hedgerows? I do not think so.
I have heard it all today. While I have great respect for my colleagues, Senator Eamonn Coghlan and Senator Michael Comiskey, from whom I take advice on agricultural and farming matters, and indeed I take advice on other matters from Senator Coghlan, I did not know until today that hedgerows throughout this country have a habit of attacking people. It is absurd to suggest that the briary thorns of a blackberry bush amount to just cause to bring in these draconian measures.
Everyone should tend to their hedgerows. The landscape should be maintained and we must have balance, but there is already provision in the case of road safety issues. If road safety concerns arise, the law already provides for intervention to deal with it. It is a ruse to suggest there are road safety or pedestrian safety issues. It is a guise to introduce this measure under a two-year pilot programme. It will never be clawed back or rolled back. It will be in place forever.
People come to this House week after week saying they are concerned about our heritage. What about the curlew, the golden plover, the skylark, the meadow pipet, the yellowhammer, the greenfinch and the linnet? They will be decimated if we desecrate the hedgerows in March and August as proposed in this legislation. It is absurd. There has not been adequate consultation. The Bill was published in Christmas week. Now, here we are trying to sneak it through in the dying days of the Government and the House. It is not necessary. I know of no farmers calling for this measure. If there are unique examples or extenuating circumstances where hedgerows have to be addressed, there is already provision in law for that to be tackled.We are here talking about green food, green technology, green energy, green economy and green jobs. It is paying lip service. There are talks about climate change. There is nothing green about the provisions in this Bill. There is nothing pro-heritage in the proposals in section 40. It is anti-environment, anti-conservation and anti-habitat. It is an attack on the wildlife and the countryside of this country. It is not pro-rural Ireland. Most right-thinking farmers and landowners would agree with me that there is adequate provision in law to address hedgerows in the existing timeframe and if one needs to extend beyond that, one can seek permission to do so as it is allowed. We are here blue in the face paying lip service to the climate change issue.
This is a further attack on the countryside. It is not good for the economy, for the countryside or for our conservation policies. It is an attack on the landscape, and that is even before I get to the issues around the canal by-laws. The Minister's predecessor, the Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach, Deputy Deenihan, tried to introduce those and we saw them off three years ago, and now here we have another Trojan horse attempt to sneak them in before the Government is dissolved. Those by-laws are not robust by-laws. They are also draconian by-laws to curb ordinary decent people trying to use the canals of this country.
I do not agree with this Bill. It does not enjoy my support and I will not be supporting it.
Dár ndóigh, cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire.
I will address my comments to the contents of Part 4 of the Bill. Over the past 20 years, the Heritage Council has done excellent work in carrying out the functions that have been assigned to it under the Heritage Act of 1995. Indeed, in May last I had the pleasure of visiting the information exhibition that was organised by the council specifically for Members of the Oireachtas and it was heartening to listen to representatives of a dozen or so not-for-profit heritage organisations on that occasion extol the changes that the Heritage Council has brought about by using its limited means to work with its local and national partners. The benefits to communities the length and breadth of the country, in terms of economic activity, job creation and enhancing the quality of rural community life, cannot be over emphasised. This is work that improved the quality of where we live and it is critical to maintaining and enhancing the attractiveness of Ireland to overseas tourists.
However, I believe that a refocusing of activities and functions of the Heritage Council, as is proposed in the Bill, with a particular emphasis on engagement with public authorities and local communities but to the exclusion of educational bodies and other organisations, will adversely affect the work of those educational bodies and other organisations. I have had a look at the strategic plan for 2012 to 2016 of the Heritage Council and I note that it refers to the importance of working with numerous organisations in order to achieve the outcomes of this plan. Such bodies and organisations include local authorities, educational bodies and many other bodies, some of which are educational trusts and some of which have a nationwide brief. While I appreciate the wording in the Bill to amend the Heritage Act 1995 at section 6(3)(b), I strongly believe that the functions of the Heritage Council must also include the original emphasis of engagement with, "educational bodies and other organisations". The Heritage Council cites bodies, such as the Discovery Programme, the National Biodiversity Data Centre, the Irish Landmark Trust, the Museums Standards Programme, as key partners in enabling it to achieve its outcomes, and most, if not all, of these bodies have educational objectives. How are we to know in the years ahead that there may not be other not-for-profit public organisations that become involved in important national heritage undertakings that would benefit from the support of the Heritage Council? These organisations must not be precluded from seeking public support and therefore we need to ensure that the Bill does not eliminate hardworking publicly-motivated bodies. The Bill's amendment of section 6(3)(b) of the 1995 Act must be further amended to retain the phrase, "educational bodies and other organisations".
As a matter of public policy, it is important to include within the requirements, not only of support but of consultation, educational bodies and other organisations, whether they be publicly-funded bodies or private bodies. As a matter of public policy, why would one deliberately excise a reference to consultation with educational bodies and other organisations? What mischief is the Minister trying to address by taking it out? It is good to include consultation with the community and other persons, but why would one take out a reference to educational bodies and other organisations? What is that designed to achieve? It seems that can only do mischief. We should be promoting a culture of consultation with educational bodies and other organisations, and, indeed, the support for those, and for their initiatives, as arises.
As to the rest of the Bill, it is a great pity that it proposes to remove the requirement for the Heritage Council to establish statutory standing committees on wildlife, archeology, architectural heritage and inland waterways and given the proposed reduction in the number of board directors, it seems it will not always be possible to have board members or, indeed, standing committee members who are skilled in directing the board to effect policies in all the different heritage areas that are cited at section 6(1) of the 1995 Act. Of course, I am aware that the Heritage Council will still be able to appoint committees as it requires and that is why I am concentrating my fire, as it were, on the need to change the amendment to section 6(3)(b) of the 1995 Act contained in the Bill so as to reinsert the reference to "educational bodies and other organisations". It should not really fall to us here in the House to have to propose the amendment. It is a reasonable, minor amendment that the Minister could bring forward on Committee Stage and I think everybody in the House would support it. I am requesting the Minister to revisit that section and to reinsert the reference to "educational bodies and other organisations" at section 6(3)(b). If the Minister is minded to make this amendment - obviously, we will need to propose it if she does not - it will ensure that the Heritage Council does not lose its original focus as it further develops its functions and inclusivity in so many important heritage areas in Ireland.
I will address the section on the canals, the opportunities that are available for the tourism sector, and the benefits that will accrue to those towns and villages situated on the canals, which, I honestly believe, are being under-utilised and the use of which I would encourage.
Provision is being made in the Bill to amend the Canals Act 1986 to allow for the making of by-laws for the regulation of boating on the canals. The amendments to the Canal Act 1986 are primarily enabling provisions to allow for the making of by-laws to regulate boating on the canals and to manage the use of the Royal Canal, the Grand Canal and the Barrow navigation. The existing provisions are very much out of date and the new provisions will allow for better management and better maintenance and control of the canals, which are a fantastic public resource and which, I reiterate, are under-utilised.
The proposed amendments will include provisions for the regulation of the canals, the issue of permits or licences to regulate the use of boats on the canals and on canal property, the regulation of the type or class of boat, including the dimensions, which may be used on the canals, and the regulation of berths and moorings and the placing of buoys on the canals or other canal property. There is nothing nicer to see than a boat navigating the canals. One sees them in other countries such as the United Kingdom, and the resulting benefits to the communities.
On appointment and powers of authorised officers, the Bill provides for powers of entry, the issue of search warrants and the service of directions.The legislation will also provide for a number of miscellaneous amendments, mostly of a technical nature, including to section 56 of the Maritime Safety Act 2005 and the consequent repeal of section 56. It will update the references to the titles of the various Ministers in the Act to reflect the current applying position. It will amend to "Waterways Ireland" those references to the Commissioners of Public Works relating to the functions transferred to Waterways Ireland by the British-Irish Agreement Acts 1999-2005. It will provide for the deletion of section 13 - this provision expired three years after the vesting day - and further details on proposed amendments are contained in the explanatory and financial memorandum to the Heritage Bill 2016.
Waterways Ireland is responsible for the management, maintenance and development of over 1,000 km of inland navigable waterways, principally for recreational use. These waterways include the lower Bann, the Royal and Grand Canals, the Shannon-Erne Waterway, the River Barrow and the River Shannon and further information is available here.
I want to see our waterways opened up and the North-South link maintained. I want to see opportunities for employment for small villages and small businesses located on the canals.
I thank those Senators who have participated, some of whose contributions have been practical and helpful in regard to canals, wildlife and heritage council elements of the amending legislation. On the canals, I welcome Senator Barrett's constructive and positive comments as our canals are valuable resources and public amenities. Like Senator Brennan, I want to see our canals further invested in. I want to see the Ulster Canal open. It is the last piece in the jigsaw and I was delighted to get approval from Government last year to commence work on the first stage of the Ulster Canal from Belturbet to Castle Saunderson. As the canal moves towards Clones on an incremental basis it will open up a whole new area of tourism and greenways and that will be hugely positive for the area.
Waterways Ireland is proactive in developing the recreational aspects of the canal. On the powers of authorised officers to enter boats that are permanent dwellings, protection is provided by the requirement to obtain a search warrant which can only be granted by a judge of the District Court. There was extensive consultation by Waterways Ireland during the consultation period on the draft canal by-laws and over 2,000 submissions were received. This is evidence of a very positive consultation process. I have taken note of the comments on the consultation period extending beyond 21 days.
I welcome Members' support for the provisions clarifying the powers of my Department's authorised officers and for updating penalties for offences under the Wildlife Acts. In answer to Senator Ó Domhnaill, there will be a further consultation process regarding the regulations on hedge cutting and burning and we need to get the right balance in achieving road safety, managing our environment and protecting flora and fauna. I note the concerns of some Members on the impact of the provisions relating to burning and hedge cutting on bird life, especially relating to the nesting period of bird species. There seems to be some misunderstanding here. We plan, in a very controlled environment, to move the hedge cutting date from 1 September to 1 August on a pilot basis. In answer to Senator Craughwell, regulations made on burning will include guidelines on burning in upland areas and will take account of our obligations under the EU nature directives.
Senator Comiskey is right; if there is proper management of the uplands it will benefit wildlife. I live in the country and birds and the natural environment surround me so I am very conscious of this. I want birds to be protected and doing this in a managed and proper way will benefit wildlife. Senator Norris had a few interesting things to say. He said that August is the middle of the nesting period. That is absolute nonsense - August is not in the middle of the nesting period and anybody who lives in the country, or even who lives in a city, should be aware of that. The hen harrier is a protected species so it is incumbent on a landowner to ensure no harm is done to the hen harrier, no matter what time of the year cutting or burning takes place. It is very important to note that landowners must take account of the habitats directive and the onus on them to make sure they do not do any damage to wildlife. People should realise that we depend on our rural dwellers and the farming community to help manage and maintain our countryside.
Reference was made to the birds case. My Department, in conjunction with a number of Government Departments and agencies, has been engaged in a significant programme of work to meet the requirements of this case since the findings were published in 2007 and, as a result of these efforts, the majority of the findings have been addressed to the satisfaction of the European Commission and no fines have been applied against the State. We must ensure that the changes to the hedge-cutting period in August does not impact on our population of wild birds, including the yellowhammers and many other species that have been mentioned here today. Any such cutting will be subject to conditions and restrictions which will be specified in regulations on hedgerow husbandry, management and maintenance to protect fauna and flora. There is a sunset clause in the Bill and I will review the operation of the provision after two years. My Department will also gather data to underpin the decision and this will include data on bird nesting and the level and impact of cutting.
During the consultation process, 188 submissions were received, ranging from detailed submissions to individual, brief points of view. Stakeholder groups, such as Birdwatch Ireland, An Taisce, the IFA, the ICMSA and Government Departments and local authorities were among those to respond. Some 102 submissions were received from members of the public, 44 from representative bodies, 29 from other Government Departments and local authorities, eight from elected representatives and five from businesses and consultancies.
The changes to the Heritage Council mainly relate to governance procedures and have arisen as a result of a detailed review undertaken in 2012. I agree that the Heritage Council does great work and is very good at engaging with communities.That is one of its great strengths. All of the changes proposed in this Bill have been agreed with the Heritage Council. I want to reassure the Senators that my Department works very closely with the Heritage Council.
I say to Senator Craughwell that the councillor gave him wrong information because funding for the Heritage Council has increased by 15% over the past two years. Its funding remained constant between 2011 and 2013 and has increased since. As the economy continues to improve I want to see more investment in our heritage.
I want to acknowledge the supporting comments by Senator Ó Domhnaill of the review of the Heritage Council. The role of the council in terms of heritage, education and awareness is very important and that is why it is an essential part of working with communities, as outlined in the Bill.
The Bill has been brought forward with the agreement of the Heritage Council. That particular section-----
- Ivana Bacik
- Terry Brennan
- Colm Burke
- Máiría Cahill
- Eamonn Coghlan
- Paul Coghlan
- Michael Comiskey
- Martin Conway
- Maurice Cummins
- Jim D'Arcy
- Mark Daly
- Aideen Hayden
- Caít Keane
- John Kelly
- Denis Landy
- Terry Leyden
- Fiach MacConghail
- Paschal Mooney
- Mary Moran
- Michael Mullins
- Catherine Noone
- Brian Ó Domhnaill
- Labhrás Ó Murchú
- Pat O'Neill
- Ned O'Sullivan
- Jillian van Turnhout
- Jim Walsh
- Diarmuid Wilson