Heritage Bill 2016 [Seanad]: Second Stage (Resumed)

Question again proposed: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I will continue where I left off yesterday. Part 3 of the Bill makes amendments to the Wildlife Acts. I am keenly aware of the need to protect our flora and fauna. For that reason, any burning and cutting will be subject to strict conditions and restrictions which will be specified in statutory regulations. The Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs will monitor activity under the pilot provisions. An assessment of the impact of those measures will be carried out before any decision is taken on continuing them beyond the pilot phase. I believe this Bill takes a pragmatic approach which will help to address some of the challenges faced by people living in rural areas.

Section 8 is designed to harmonise the provisions of the Roads Act 1993 with the Wildlife Acts. This will ensure works undertaken for safety purposes under section 70 of the 1993 Act are an exempted activity under section 40 of the Wildlife Act 1976. Essentially, this will mean a landowner who needs to trim back an overgrown hedge in the interests of road safety will not be in breach of the Wildlife Acts if he or she does so. At present, there is a conflict between the roads legislation and the wildlife legislation. This will eliminate that confusion. Following legal advice, I have taken the opportunity in this Bill to clarify the powers of authorised officers of my Department and An Garda Síochána under the Wildlife Acts by bringing them into line with the powers of authorised persons under the more modern European Communities (Birds and Natural Habitats) Regulations 2011. I have updated the penalties for offences under the Wildlife Acts, which were last changed in 2010, to make them more consistent with similar penalties under the 2011 regulations. As Minister, I will also have new powers to make regulations declaring that certain offences under the Wildlife Acts may be subject to fixed payment notices.

Part 4 makes amendments to the Heritage Act 1995. These amendments are based on the recommendations in the report of the critical review of the Heritage Council, which was carried out in 2012 by my Department in the context of the public service reform plan. The changes refocus particular functions of the Heritage Council, deal with the non-remuneration of the board, the size and composition of the board and quorum requirements for board meetings and eliminate the requirement for the council to maintain statutory standing committees. Section 11 will amend the 1995 Act by refocusing the activities and functions of the Heritage Council with a particular emphasis on engagement with communities and local authorities and by introducing the non-remuneration of members of the board while continuing their entitlement to expenses incurred in the discharge of their duties as board members. Changes to the Schedule to the 1995 Act will reduce the size of the board of the Heritage Council to between eight and ten members, excluding the chairperson; continue the existing principle of gender balance on the board by having a minimum requirement for four female and four male members; reduce the quorum necessary to five members, including the chairperson, to reflect the smaller board size; and remove the requirement for the Heritage Council to maintain statutory standing committees on wildlife, archaeology, architectural heritage and inland waterways. However, the council will retain the right to set up committees as it sees fit.

As I have set out, the changes proposed in the Bill are mainly enabling provisions. I believe they represent the best way forward in terms of regulating the canals for the benefit of all users, managing the burning and cutting of vegetation and refining the role and governance of the Heritage Council. I look forward to hearing the contributions of Deputies. I recommend the Bill to the House.

Tá brón orm nach raibh mé anseo inné le héisteacht leis an gcéad chuid d'óráid an Aire. Mar a tharla, bhí mé as baile le cúpla lá agus ní raibh mé in ann bheith i láthair. I could not be present for the start of this debate yesterday, unfortunately, because I was out of the country for a few days on personal business. I am delighted to be here today to have an opportunity to say a few words on this Bill. As there is huge interest in the Bill, the process we will follow from here to the end of the legislative process will be very important. In my view, some of the many concerns that have been raised regarding this Bill do not stand up to scrutiny. I will mention one specifically.

I understand that in the Seanad the Minister agreed to an amendment clarifying that it would not be illegal for someone to cut a roadside hedge pursuant to the Roads Act between the months of March and August. The ban in the Bill on cutting during those months is not absolute, and would not be even if the Minister had not agreed to the Seanad amendment, because the Roads Act has always provided an out. The amendment agreed to by the Minister in the Seanad does no more and no less than clarify that nothing in this Bill makes what has always been allowed under the Roads Act illegal. In other words, it preserves the status quo. That is my reading of the use of the words "pursuant to". Such issues need to be teased out on Committee Stage. We might table amendments to delete some of these words. We need to tease out this aspect of the Bill to reassure ourselves and those who are concerned about these issues about the legal interpretation of what the Minister is proposing. Deputies need to be assured that her proposal maintains the status quo with regard to cutting in the months of March, April, May, June and July.

I would like to mention a second issue that arises in this context. As I understand it, the Bill now provides that one can cut at one's discretion in August, subject to an order to be made by the Minister which will limit it, without having to get an order from the county council. That will be the only difference, in effect. As the summer goes on and roadside growth continues, many people find that it can be quite difficult to go through the rather complex mechanisms with the local authorities. I am not convinced that a huge number of birds nest in that growth on the roadside. I think nature is a little smarter than that. We have often seen owls using barns and so on. Birds are quite good at adapting to man-made structures.

On the wildlife side, we must recognise that the issue of modern flails, cutting and so on has created a new circumstance for wildlife that did not exist in previous times. There is need, therefore, for a high protection level during nesting season. Nobody in the House, including the Minister, wants to damage that, but we need to tease it out and see if we have the right balance.

On the other hand, personal safety must be paramount. We have to ensure, in particular, the roadside safety of those who travel on our narrow boreens. Those of us who live on some of the more narrow boreens are familiar with the problem of roadside growth. People who visit rural Ireland often believe this is not a problem because they travel mainly on regional roads, but those who use the tertiary roads are aware that very small growth on the side of the road can totally obstruct one's view. It is especially dangerous if young people are walking along the side of the road. In Gaeltacht areas, where many students come to stay in the summer and tend to walk from the college to the houses, this issue has always been a major cause of concern.

We need to tease out the issue of burning but I have sympathy for what the Minister is trying to do. Some of the commentary on this is extreme and exaggerated but I am willing to listen when we come to deal with the Bill in committee and I will suggest that anybody who wants to make a case would be able to make a presentation to Teachtaí Dála because there was no pre-legislative scrutiny of the legislation in the Dáil. That could be done in a few days. I have always believed that legislation debated fully is much better than legislation rammed through where the fine print is not gone through and people do not have an opportunity to hear the debate and understand why we in this House make the decisions we make. I do not believe the Minister will have the regulations written this side of the summer. Therefore, there is no real time constraint on this now. We would be better doing the job correctly rather than doing it in a hurry.

The first issue we must note is that we have had a problem with wildfires. There are various reasons for their occurrence and some relate to issues I have fought about for a long time. I have argued that a significant degree of destocking of the hills and uplands has occurred and that it has lead to very woody heather as well as gorse growing. As we saw this year, if we get a very dry spell, the heather and the gorse grow and eventually the ground goes up because the bog starts burning itself. That was one of the problems that arose in the Cloosh Valley. When the wind changes, the fire lights up all over again and were it not for the rain coming, it would have been very difficult to put out those fires fully.

It is not a question of there being no burning. Burning is happening. It is very unfair of people to blame farmers for this incident when we have no evidence as to who started it. Until there is evidence, we must keep an open mind as to how these fires started. There is no question but that they were illegal. The vast degree of burning that took place this year in March, April and May was illegal. It was 100% illegal, and nobody is arguing about that. The question is: are we more likely to have serious fires if somebody is irresponsible and lights a fire and if we have overgrowth on the hills? My view is that we are. The higher the heather, the more woody it is in nature and, therefore, there is a lot of timber in it, so there is then a greater risk of a serious fire breaking out. That raises many issues about the policies that have been pursued. Environmentalists have sought very heavy destocking of the hills but I am not sure they realised fully that farmers, left to their own devices, have a very good idea of how to manage the uplands.

The second issue we must examine is how much controlled burning has taken, and is taking, place and how much, if any, of it got out of control. Is it very limited when we take the total land area of the uplands into account?

The third issue we must recognise is that the season happens later in the hills. The lambs arrive at the end of April. Lowland farmers think that is very strange but things tend to happen later in the hills. In many years, carrying out controlled burning during February is impossible because it is way too wet to do it. These are issues we need to tease out.

I refer to the loscadh sléibhe, the flail and the mechanical hedge cutting machines that did not exist 150 years ago. It is interesting that when Antone Ó Raifteiri wrote his famous poem, "Anach Cuan", about the tragedy that befell the people of Annaghdown when they were going past Newcastle on their way into Galway and he was wishing every badness on the place that this tragedy happened. He talked about loscadh sléibhe, which is the Irish for saying may the hills go on fire in the place that this bad thing happened. He wrote "Loscadh sléibhe agus scalladh cléibhe" and he went on to write about the place this happened. Wildlife survived from the 19th century. People would say that 50 years to 100 years ago the wildlife was in pristine condition and that is why we have to preserve it. However, hills going on fire has been happening for as long as people have lived in any of these areas and the wildlife has survived. I find it hard to believe, although I am open to listening to groups, that controlled burning carried out in March, done under statutory instruments the Minister would introduce, are likely to have a detrimental effect. Once we get the statistics on controlled burning and compare them with the uncontrolled burning that is happening, because we are not controlling what is happening on the hills, there would be a considerable case to be made that we would end up with less rather than more burning on the hills.

I understand that in Wicklow, the Wicklow Uplands Council and all the parties involved, including those engaged in wildlife protection, are in favour of limited controlled burning. I want to be clear that I am talking about controlled burning. We have much to debate and we have to listen to everybody and the committee must inform itself. I am glad go bhfuil cathaoirleach an choiste anseo inniu. Tá mé tar éis scríobh cheana féin ag an gCathaoirleach ag moladh go mbeadh deis againn éisteacht leis na pointí ar fad. Níl mise mé féin an-tógtha le grúpaí ag teacht isteach ag iarraidh muid a fháil ar chuairt chucu. B'fhearr liom go dtiocfadh na daoine ar fad a bhfuil spéis acu sa mBille os ár gcomhair amach mar choiste agus go ndéarfaidís amach ar an taifead an rud a chreideann siad.

Rather than various lobby groups trying to speak to the Minister in quiet corners, it would be much better for them to appear before the committee and make their presentations. That would be a little unusual but the way this Bill has come to us is unusual in that it has come through the Seanad and we did have pre-legislative scrutiny of the heads of it. Therefore, we need to hear from everybody concerned but I would much prefer to hear them speak in the open and that any relevant group could appear before the committee and make a presentation.

With respect to the canals, we need to have the ability to make rules to manage the waterways and so on. We have an exciting and a fantastic resource in our waterways. We need to strike a balance. At times I wonder whether we are over-legislating. When legislation is introduced groups imagine Ministers will do things that no Minister in his or her right political mind would ever do, such as closing down canals or whatever. People sometimes misunderstand the position - for example, that canals have already been filled in-----

I must ask the Deputy to conclude.

Nóiméad amháin.

The Deputy has some time remaining.

I have a number of minutes remaining.

Debate adjourned.