At the outset, I would like to thank the many Deputies, including the Ceann Comhairle, who wished me well. All one needs in life is luck and, hopefully, things will go well in carrying out my tasks on behalf of the public.
I also thank the many Deputies on both sides of the House for their contributions to the Second Stage debate on this significant Bill. Their contributions have been both useful and informed. The range and extent of the comments provide evidence of the huge interest that forestry generates for so many people. The comments of the Deputies focused not just on the economic value of the forest industry, but also the importance of forestry from the environmental and recreational perspectives.
Tourism was mentioned in the context of forest walkways and roadways. I was struck by the link between tourism and forestry, and the importance of forest walkways in bringing overseas visitors to our country. As we emerge from our economic difficulties, we must try to encourage more tourists to come here. The forest sector will play a major role in that respect.
It is important that a legislative framework be put in place for the future development of this important economic resource that recognises and reflects the objective of ensuring that such development is consistent with protecting the environment. I am confident that the Bill will make a significant contribution to that process.
As I said in my opening remarks, this Bill is about forestry and good forest practices. Many people have spoken about Coillte but this Bill is not about that company. I acknowledge the many speakers who have praised the Government for making a difficult decision on the future of Coillte, which was good for the country. The Bill's provisions are applicable both to public and private forestry owners, which is important.
I appreciate that this legislation has been a long time in preparation and I am conscious of the gap between the completion of the initial consultation process some time ago and the presentation of the Bill to the House. To address this, several meetings have taken place recently with interested parties. In addition, we have received a number of written submissions.
In his contribution to the debate, Deputy Boyd Barrett made a strong call for further consultation on the Bill, as did my colleague Deputy Michael Creed. I noted their concerns and since the commencement of the Second Stage debate in early October, my officials and I have met with a number of stakeholder and representative groups spanning the range of forestry interests, including forest owners, forest companies, farm organisations, agricultural consultants and environmental groups. Even yesterday, at the IFA conference in Athlone I met with a group of forestry producers. In recent weeks, my door has been open for meaningful discussions on the Bill. I acknowledge the contribution of those who helped us to steer the Bill through the House.
I am satisfied that the Bill will provide a more flexible system for regulating forestry activities, including felling licensing and will better serve the interests of all stakeholders. Where regulations are to be introduced, I will also facilitate prior consultation with relevant stakeholders.
I wish to acknowledge the contribution of the late Shane McEntee who began the work on this legislation. As I go around the country to meet with various groups, Shane McEntee's name has come up every time due to his input and commitment to the legislation. Like everyone else, I think of him today and I also think of his widow and family as they face into the first anniversary of his death.
Deputies O'Reilly, Ferris, Ó Cuív and Halligan referred to the administrative burden associated with forestry. In my opening address I stressed that the intention of the Bill is not to add to the administrative burden on landowners or other stakeholders in the forest sector. It is important to repeat that message now. The intention is to streamline and simplify the various processes. The issue of red tape has been mentioned by many contributors, including one of my predecessors Deputy John Browne. I can reassure Deputies that the systems to be put in place by my Department will be as user-friendly as possible. It is neither in the Department's nor the applicant's interest that processes should be overly complex or difficult to deliver.
I acknowledge that people are considering working in the forestry sector, but there is also competition in the dairy industry where huge potential is developing following the developments regarding the quota. In addition, beef markets are opening up. With more profitability coming back into agriculture, forestry must be placed on a level playing field. It is in nobody's interest, therefore, to have a complex process operating in the sector. I look forward to working with everyone on Committee Stage to ensure that no administrative obstacles are placed in anyone's way.
Deputy Browne mentioned that the Bill does not set targets for the supply of wood to the industry.
The setting of such targets is a matter of ongoing policy. It is not a matter appropriate to primary legislation dealing with regulation of the industry.
I remind the House of the Government's continued commitment to forestry, as evidenced by the maintenance of funding for the forestry sector in the recent budget. As acknowledged today, the maintenance of funding in this area over the past few years and, in particular, the past year was a difficult task. The Government has in this regard, to use an old phrase, "put its money where its mouth is". I hope it can continue to maintain this funding into the future. The argument that the investment has been already made by the taxpayer will support this. I am pleased to reiterate that commitment as announced in the recent budget.
Deputies Creed, Ferris and others raised the issue of the Minister's ability to acquire land for afforestation. I am happy to clarify for the Deputies, farming organisations and forest owners concerned about this issue that based on the legal advice I have received on the matter, section 6(e) does not provide the Minister with the power to purchase land by compulsory order.
Another issue raised by Deputy Andrew Doyle and others is that of land availability. The Department has set up a working group comprising a wide range of stakeholders to examine the wide range of issues affecting existing afforestation levels, on which matter it will report to the Department. I hope this process will be successful and will result in the provision of a guideline or roadmap in this regard. One has only to drive the roads of Ireland to see the vast amount of marginal land that could potentially be used for forestry. It is important more land is made available. If this does not happen, the industry may run into trouble.
A number of Deputies, including Deputy Bannon, raised the issue of the requirement for felling licences and, in particular, for thinning operations. Thinning licences are needed to ensure protection of the environment, to prevent illegal deforestation and to facilitate timber certification and other traceability systems. This will provide forest owners with the necessary documentary evidence that trees have been felled and legally sourced. I have spoken to numerous forest owners and I acknowledge that thinning is good forest practice which needs to be encouraged. I also recognise that there is a need for thinning licences and that the licensing process needs to be user-friendly.
One of the advantages of a forest management plan is that it allows forest owners to have a medium to long-term vision for the woodlands they manage. The submission of such plans will allow all scheduled felling, including thinning, to be licensed for a period of up to ten years. It will also allow greater flexibility for forest owners scheduling harvesting activities. I propose on Committee Stage to introduce a provision dealing with turnaround times for the processing of these licences, which I hope will clarify the situation for the many people and Deputies who raised this issue with me. I am committed to making the process as easy as possible.
A number of Deputies also raised the issue of replanting following felling. The Bill allows the Minister to set conditions and includes the replanting of trees. Unlike the 1946 Act under which replanting is mandatory in the case of a general felling licence, this Bill provides for an element of discretion in relation to the felling regime proposed therein. This is important. Forests provide a wide range of benefits and play an essential role in protecting our environment. They also provide a sustainable supply of timber and fuel for industry, act as an essential store of carbon and are important for mitigation against climate change. The State has invested heavily in the afforestation programme through payment of grants and premiums and generous tax arrangements to encourage land-use change.
On the charging of fees, section 24 of the Bill gives the Minister the option to charge for the services of the Department into the future. This provision has given rise to some concerns among farmer and industry representatives and was also articulated by Deputy Joe Carey in the course of his contribution. It is a matter of policy whether the Minister should charge for such services. The inclusion of this provision in the Bill should not be interpreted as a statement of intent. I remind Deputies that the Department does not currently charge for forestry licences or scheme applications and this will remain the position.
On the powers of authorised officers, concern was expressed by a number of Deputies about the powers afforded in the Bill to authorised officers, primarily forestry inspectors, in the exercise of their functions. These powers are essential to enable the Department and its officers to fully investigate the range of issues in relation to alleged illegal activities encountered by it in the exercise of its forestry remit. Authorised officers of the Department working in areas such as plant health, marketing of forest reproductive material and direct payments already have a wide range of powers under various Acts and regulations, which are in line with those listed in the Bill. These powers will be exercised within the law and in a proportionate and fair manner. It is my intention to ensure fairness in this regard.
On the issue of penalties for offences such as illegal felling, forgery, etc., Deputies will be aware of the need for penalties to be dissuasive and proportionate. It is important to note that the penalties imposed will be a matter for the courts to decide following a conviction. The Bill also provides for fixed payment notices for minor offences relating to unlicensed felling, similar to those issued in respect of a speeding fine. These offences can be dealt with without the expense and utilisation of scarce resources that recourse to the courts entails. This is a very welcome development. It will ensure that illegally felled areas are replanted under the protection of the law without the offender being taken to court. It is a provision that should be made use of in other areas.
On the power of the Minister under section 20 to register felling conditions or replanting orders as a burden on the land, this power already exists in current legislation and is not new. It is a discretionary power which will serve to protect the interests of a potential purchaser of forestry land where, for example, there is a replanting condition. I will look again at the scope of this provision in the context of Committee Stage.
Several speakers expressed concern regarding the provisions setting out the responsibilities of committee members appointed under the Bill and, in particular, the penalties for breaches of confidentiality. Again, I will review this provision on Committee Stage.
The power of the Minister to request further information was also raised. This power is important in order to collect statistics and information on the national forest estate, which will complement national and EU reporting requirements. Collection of information on forests will also provide information to the Minister on how forests are being managed and may determine the direction of future policy. I have listened to the concerns expressed by Deputies in this regard and will consider the matter further on Committee Stage. I assure Members that the intention under this provision is nothing other than the compiling of information.
The issue of the damage caused by deer and vermin was raised by Deputy Andrew Doyle and others. I recognise that this is a serious problem in certain parts of the country, particularly in Wicklow. The Bill provides for the carrying out of deer control measures and the making of regulations in the areas of forest protection. Such regulations will be provided subject to consultation with all relevant stakeholders. I intend to commence that consultation process as soon as possible.
Deputies Mattie McGrath, Patrick O'Donovan, Tony McLoughlin and others referred to the impact of timber haulage on local roads. It is an issue that is raised regularly with local authorities throughout the country and is a matter of serious concern for local residents. The Forest Industry Transport Group, which includes representatives of local authorities, the haulage industry and relevant State bodies, is currently developing a good practice guide to managing timber transport. I am hopeful this will address some of the issues that have arisen and alleviate people's concerns.
I reiterate my appreciation of the contributions made by Deputies on this important issue. The debate has been very useful in providing clarity on key provisions of the Bill and putting to rest a number of misunderstandings. It was put to me more than once by certain parties that the Bill should be torn up, but I was never going to do that. When I came to office I knew this legislation had to be dealt with and, moreover, I knew it was needed. The democratic consultation process was very helpful to our endeavours to produce the best possible legislation. I take this opportunity to commend my officials on their commitment to making the Bill amenable both to people in rural areas and the forestry industry. It is an exciting sector and one that is very important from an economic and tourism point of view. It is also hugely important in terms of the environment. Anybody associated with forestry will have enjoyed the beautiful colours of the trees and leaves in recent weeks. I look forward to working with Deputies on Committee Stage to move the Bill forward.