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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 4 Nov 2021

Vol. 1013 No. 4

Animal Health and Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2021: Second Stage

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

I am pleased to introduce the Animal Health and Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2021, which is draft legislation to prohibit fur farming in Ireland, to the House. The final version of the Bill, as drafted by the Office of the Attorney General, was approved by the Government at its meeting on 19 October 2021. The Government also authorised the Minister to introduce the Bill into the Dáil or Seanad for debate. The general scheme of the Bill was previously approved by the Government and it has been through pre-legislative scrutiny in the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and Marine.

The programme for Government 2020 includes a commitment to bring forward legislation that prohibits fur farming in the State. While fur farming was once legal and socially acceptable in most countries, there is now a broad consensus among veterinary and other scientific experts that certain animals should not be farmed for their fur or skin because of serious animal welfare concerns that cannot be mitigated. There are also increasing societal concerns in this regard.

There are three active farms in the State that breed and rear mink for the purposes of pelting for the fur industry. The statutory prohibition on fur farming will, in particular, impact these three farms which are currently operating a lawful business. For this reason, the draft legislation makes provision for a scheme of compensation that my Department will make available to the three farm businesses affected by the prohibition. The Bill also introduces other miscellaneous amendments to the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013.

The provisions of the Bill that govern the nature of the compensation scheme that can be provided for ensure that mink farming operators are to be compensated for losses and costs directly resulting from the prohibition on fur farming in Ireland. The Bill sets out criteria upon which compensation for income loss, non-income loss and certain costs will be payable. The types of costs that will be covered by any compensation scheme made under the legislation will include redundancy payments to employees, certain professional fees, mink disposal and clean-up costs, and the costs involved in the demolition of mink buildings. It should be noted that the specific details regarding the methodology for calculating the compensation payable in respect of income and non-income losses and costs incurred are to be provided for in regulations made by the Minister rather than being set in the primary legislation.

Provisions have also been inserted into the Bill that will allow the Minister to authorise advance compensation payments to affected farmers in respect of any particular income loss, non-income loss or type of cost which can subsequently be offset against any compensation amount to be made.

The Bill provides for the appointment of an assessor whose function shall be to examine an application for compensation submitted and to determine the amount of compensation payable. The Bill provides that an assessor may require information or documents from an applicant and applicants are obligated to assist and co-operate with the assessor in this respect.

The Bill makes provision for appeal to the High Court. In addition, the Bill provides that the decision of an assessor can be appealed by the Minister. The Bill provides procedures for the payment of compensation and includes express provision authorising the Minister to offset any advance payments that may have previously been made.

The Bill makes it an offence to engage in fur farming and provides for appropriate penalties. It also provides for a procedure for the disposal of fur-producing animals lawfully seized following commencement of the prohibition on fur farming.

The legislation also includes some technical amendments to the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013 and a repeal of the Milk (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1979, which is no longer required and is not being replaced.

I now wish to deal with the main provisions of the Bill. Section 1 is the definitions section for the purposes of this legislation. It contains one definition only, which is that the Animal Health and Welfare Act 2013 is defined as the "Act of 2013".

In section 2, we have an amendment to the definition of an "animal product" set out in section 2 of the 2013 Act. The new definition of "animal product" will include "wool, skin, fur or feathers derived from an animal".

Section 3 is an amendment of section 39 of Act of 2013. Section 39 provides gardaí with a power of arrest without warrant for certain animal health and welfare offences.

Section 71B contains the prohibition on fur and skin farming and creates a new criminal offence of engaging in fur or skin farming in contravention of the section.

Section 71C provides for a procedure to be followed for the disposal of specified animals that have been seized by authorised officers on the basis they are being kept for the value of their fur or skin in contravention of the prohibition. The Minister shall, as soon as practicable after the seizure and detention, apply to a District Court for an order authorising the disposal. A notice is required to be served on the person before an application to the court is made.

Section 71D sets out the overarching principles that will govern the compensation payable to existing fur farming enterprises that will be forced to cease their businesses as a direct consequence of the prohibition. Compensation will be payable for income losses, non-income losses and costs incurred as a direct result. The amount of compensation for each affected fur farming business is to be determined by an independent assessor to be appointed by the Minister. The Bill contains principles and policies that authorise the Minister to make regulations to specify the income and non-income losses and other costs in respect of which compensation is payable and the basis of valuation for assessing income and non-income losses, and to provide for financial limits to apply to certain compensation payments where appropriate. Regulations will also provide compensation for the costs involved in disposing of breeding mink, demolition and clean-up costs, payments required to be made to redundant workers, and certain professional fees incurred in the preparation of applicants' claim forms and in the making of representations to my Department relating to the development of this legislation. Finally, regulations can also be made to provide for a number of administrative matters, including advance payments to claimants prior to any final determination of their compensation entitlements under the Bill, the appointment of an assessor, the form and content of applications for compensation, information required to be furnished by applicants and any other matters that are incidental supplemental and consequential thereto.

Section 71E provides for the appointment of an assessor to determine the amount of compensation that will be payable to an applicant. The person so appointed must possess an appropriate level of skill, knowledge and qualifications to perform this important function. The assessor shall be independent and shall be paid fees and expenses as determined by the Minister and Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform.

Section 71G provides the assessor with a power to require further information or documentation from an applicant if the assessor considers that it is reasonably necessary to have that additional information. The assessor may issue a notice in writing requiring an applicant to provide further information or documents or to verify such information or documents within a defined period for response. Where the information or documents are in the power, possession or procurement of a third party, the applicant shall make every reasonable effort to obtain that information or those documents.

Section 71H provides a direction to an assessor on how to proceed in the event of a failure of an applicant to co-operate. Where there is a failure to provide documentation, information or assistance to an assessor, the Bill will allow him or her to determine the application in a manner that has regard to the fact the information or documentation submitted or requested was incomplete or that assistance required was not forthcoming. In such circumstances an assessor may draw any adverse inferences he or she considers appropriate, albeit only in the most extreme of cases he or she would make a determination that the applicant is not entitled to compensation.

In the circumstances, this legislation will provide an effective right of appeal against an assessor's compensation determination should any party to it consider it necessary to challenge same.

Section 71K relates to the High Court appeal option. It directs that where the High Court decides to set aside the determination and remit it, the Minister shall assign an assessor to consider the application and the assessor shall have regard to the stated reasons of the court.

Section 71L relates to payment of compensation. The Minister shall pay the assessor's determination as soon as practicable. Where an appeal has been made, the Minister shall pay after the date on which the determination under appeal ceases to be under appeal. If the High Court has made an order, the Minister shall pay the compensation in accordance with the order as soon as practicable.

Section 7 is an amendment of Schedule 3 to Act of 2013 in which the Department seeks to license marts by way of secondary legislation for the purposes of ensuring the health and welfare of the animals present in the mart. To this end, a new mart-specific paragraph 40A is inserted into Schedule 3 to the 2013 Act and a minor consequential amendment is made to existing paragraph 40.

Section 8 is repeal of certain legislation. The Bill provides for the repeal of the Milk (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1979. This Act is no longer required and will not be replaced.

Section 9 is the Short Title, collective citation, construction and commencement. The section cites this Act as the Animal Health and Welfare (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2021. It provides that the Animal Health and Welfare Acts 2013 and 2019 and this Act shall be construed as one Act, as the Animal Health and Welfare Acts 2013 to 2021. It also contains a commencement provision which will authorise me to choose the date on which the provisions of this legislation will come into operation.

I have presented a detailed view of the provisions of the Bill. The legislation will prohibit fur farming in Ireland. There is now a broad consensus among veterinary and other scientific experts that certain animals should not be farmed for their fur or skin because of serious animal welfare concerns that cannot be mitigated. There are also increasing serious societal concerns in this regard. The legislation provides for a fair and reasonable scheme of compensation that my Department will make available to the three farm businesses affected by the prohibition which are currently operating legitimate businesses and to all of the necessary standards and for whom this move is very significant indeed. I commend the Bill to the Dáil.

The Minister has provided a script with unusual pagination; it has pages 1, 3, 7 and 5. We move to Sinn Féin and Deputy Carthy.

Sinn Féin supports a prohibition on fur farming and as such we will be supporting this Bill. I commend the Minister on bringing it to the House in a timely manner. It is important to note that while many of us probably have little interest in, or understanding of, fur farming and it would be an alien concept to many, it is important to put on record that those who have been engaged in it have been doing so legally and to standards that have been set out. Through the deliberations at the Oireachtas agriculture committee and other engagements that have been had, there has been no suggestion that those who have been operating in this sector have been doing so to anything other than the absolute standards that have been set out. There have quite clearly been animal concerns and societal concerns and this has been raised. I think it is appropriate that in 2021 we are acting on those concerns.

There will be scope for further deliberations on proposals for amendments and I hope the Minister will be open to that. I have some questions about the huge flexibility now in place with the compensation package. The Minister will know that during pre-legislative scrutiny there were very different sets of figures set out, by the Department on the one hand and the industry on the other, on the actual costs that may be involved. I note some of the points of contention are not defined in the legislation itself and therefore it is important we ensure we do not end up in a situation of serious dispute, especially as this legislation provides recourse to the High Court. It would be an absolute travesty if we ended up in a situation where huge sums of money were spent in legal wrangling as opposed to addressing the issue.

The position of the workers is also a very important issue that must be addressed. This is a very unique situation. There are people working on farms earning a wage as PAYE workers and who are going to lose their jobs because of an Act of this Oireachtas. In this circumstance it is entirely unfair they would merely be entitled to statutory redundancy and I hope some Ministers will be able to outline how that matter can be addressed going forward. There were particular issues raised during pre-legislative scrutiny regarding the removal and disposal of asbestos at some of the sites. I do not know if the Minister can indicate whether those issues have been addressed. There have also been issues about engagement with local authorities on any planning issues that might arise from the change of use or dismantling of these farms. Again, it would be useful if we could get clarification on whether the Department has carried out assessments of all that.

There are a number of areas regarding animal welfare concerns which need to be addressed by this House. I welcome and commend the fact we have made progress on this issue. I look forward to and hope the Minister will work constructively with us as we move through the remaining Stages of this Bill. The Bill allows, as is usual, for the Minister to set out a timeframe for when this will be enacted. I would welcome a commitment that it is his intention that when the Bill proceeds through the Houses of the Oireachtas, which I hope we can do speedily, he will act speedily in enacting it so we can clearly show this House has been decisive in moving forward on this issue.

The programme for Government includes a commitment to bring forward legislation that prohibits fur farming in the State and this Bill is a welcome development.

While fur farming was once legal and socially acceptable in most countries there is now a broad consensus that certain animals should not be farmed for their fur because of serious animal welfare concerns that cannot be addressed. There are just three active farms in the State that breed and rear mink for the purposes of pelting for the fur industry. The tide is turning against fur farming. It is already banned in Austria, Croatia, the Netherlands, Britain and the Czech Republic. It will be illegal in Norway from February 2025. We must ensure this legislation is dealt with swiftly. Each December approximately 80% of mink are killed, leaving approximately 20% as breeding stock. This will leave approximately 24,000 mink in the country in the new year. Currently, there are 120,000 mink here. We must ensure this year is the last breeding season. There are alternatives to fur for those who want them. There is a material new to the market called Koba Fur. It is a bio-based fur made not from petroleum oil but from oil from vegetable crops. There is recycled faux fur. Making use of what we already have and reducing landfill and pollution is critical to an environmentally friendly future.

The main purpose of this Bill is the statutory prohibition of fur farming. It will impact on three farms in the State, including one in County Laois, which are currently operating lawful businesses. For this reason, the legislation makes provision for a scheme of compensation to be made available to them. These provisions of the Bill govern the nature of the compensation scheme that can be provided to ensure mink farm operators are to be compensated for losses and costs directly resulting from the prohibition of fur farming in Ireland. The Bill sets out criteria upon which compensation for income loss, non-income loss and certain costs will be payable. I would like to see a retaining fund put in place for the 30 to 40 workers between the three farms. There must be a just transition for them. Mink are an invasive species and it can only help our biodiversity to have all mink removed from the country. Perhaps the former workers could assist in helping remove escaped wild mink, which are wreaking havoc on local ecology, before being retrained. I for one will be glad to see an end to this activity and we need to take action for the animals' sake.

I also commend an tAire for bringing this Bill to the House. I am sure many people watching on will not be sorry to see the end of fur farming in this State. It is a practice that has faced opposition for many years now and finally the days of fur farming and the slaughter of these animals for their skin is coming to an end.

The existence of these types of farms has not settled well with me so I will not mourn the loss of fur farms in the State. Indeed, Sinn Féin as a party has been opposed to the farming of mink since the 2007 Ard-Fheis so we will be supporting this Bill. However, like any enterprise, fur farms are businesses which employ people and which have been invested in and that is what we must take note of when analysing this Bill. We are talking about legislation that will introduce a prohibition on a type of business, in this case fur farming. These are businesses nonetheless and jobs will be lost and livelihoods and families will be affected. Like any other sector, we must examine how the issues of compensation and recompense will be organised for workers. Can the Department detail any progress that has been made on the issue of statutory redundancy and does it foresee anything above statutory redundancy being provided? Where are we on the request for a retraining fund for staff to be put in place? Given the change the workers will experience in their work life as a result of this, it is only right that such training be provided for, as has been said already.

When this matter was discussed at the agriculture committee, I enquired as to the cost that would be involved in removing asbestos roofs which we were told will have to be dealt with. Will an tAire give us any indication of whether that has been addressed? As I recall, during the sector's appearance at the committee it was claimed that two out of the three farms have asbestos in their buildings. At the time of the committee discussion, we were told the Department is looking at a cap of €50 per square metre. I said then that I worked for 35 years in that business and to talk about €50 to get rid of asbestos is to be in dreamland. It will not cover the cost. Someone, be it the Department or the industry itself, is being asked to take the cost. Can the Department confirm whether it is sticking to that figure and if the additional costs will be included in the asbestos removal? There is also the cost of transportation and disposal, which cannot take place in this country, to take into account.

On the same issue, has the Department engaged with the relevant local authorities regarding an assessment of the possible environmental impact the demolition of the structures concerned may have? This had not been the case at the time this matter was discussed at the committee. If this has been done, what was the outcome of those talks? The committee also witnessed a divergence of opinion between the Department and fur farmers over how the compensation scheme would be designed and whether it would factor in a dip in the market the stakeholders claimed had been experienced between 2015 and 2020. Do we have an update on that?

I will ask about the overall future of this industry. Given that we are banning the fur industry in Ireland, is there any intention, or have any plans been made, to tackle the industry in general? By this I mean dealing with the importation of fur of this nature. Does the Department also intend to ban fur for importation or does our opposition to the practice end with the banning of the industry here?

I support this Bill and welcome the fact that fur farming in this country has been prohibited. I note it makes provision to also ban fur farming that does not currently occur in Ireland involving other animals, with significant penalties for those who engage in it. The workers affected will need to be assisted through this change and it is important the Department treats them fairly and appropriately.

I too welcome this Bill and Sinn Féin will support it. It is fair to say there is widespread and growing unease at the use of animal furs in clothing and the reduction of an animal to a pelt, a fashion accessory or a symbol of wealth and status. Growing up, I remember the protests about fur on the catwalks and the banners that read "It takes...[50] dumb animals to make [this]...coat. But only one to wear it". It was stark but effective. As a society, we no longer have to rely on animal skins for warmth or protection. Fur is a luxury we can no longer afford in terms of public health or animal health and welfare. There are concerns worldwide about the intensive conditions under which animals are farmed for fur and a growing sense that it is no longer acceptable. It is not just a case of less is more or fewer are better; none at all is ideal.

While this compassion for animals and worry for their welfare is admirable and desirable, it has a major impact on the people who have made fur farming their lives, many of them through generations. It is of critical importance to our fur farmers who have been farming well, legally and to high standards. In some cases, generations of families were reared on the strength of it. They know their business backwards and have invested heavily in their operations in terms of commitment, skill and money. They cannot now be abandoned. They must be fairly compensated for the dramatic changes in the professional fortunes on which whole families depend for a living. For Sinn Féin, our fur farmers are no different from any other workers who merit respect and dignity, especially at a time of major change and readjustment. These are well-run businesses and real livelihoods, with careers and futures on the line, so the packages must be right. I commend Deputy Ryan on what she suggested because many mink were released into the wild by misled activists. It would be a very good idea to look at what she suggested.

The psychological and emotional aspects of change must be also taken into account, which are factors that cannot be underestimated and must be addressed in the same way as the practical considerations. It cannot be the case that the State abandons these small operators at the very time they most need our help. Sinn Féin is not alone in having concerns about this compensation and how it is devised. There seems to be a lack of it and it is certainly not the package it could be. Deputies Carthy and Browne mentioned asbestos and the Minister has to look at that issue again. These are major practical concerns that are a source of worry to the operators and their workers. We are also duly concerned about the statutory redundancy and retraining fund the operators have sought. It is a necessary lifeline for those who will be seeking employment in other areas after years of specialising in farming animals for fur.

The environmental aspects also need to be considered. More, and better, needs to be done, with a focus on the issues overall, including the financial, practical and psychological. I wish to make it clear that we in Sinn Féin are anxious that these hardworking people are not abandoned but are supported throughout the necessary changes. There is much more to do for these workers and businesses so people can feel protected and can face the future with a modicum of confidence and dignity.

I am glad to speak on behalf of the Labour Party in support of the key principle and purpose of this Bill, namely, to introduce a statutory prohibition on fur farming. Speaking for the Labour Party, and as a long-standing advocate for animal rights, I am very glad to see this legislation come before us. It is receiving a very broad welcome, which is good to see. There is a growing acceptance of the need for such a prohibition, as others have said. We are also all conscious of the need to ensure a just transition because of the fact that jobs that will be affected by this. For that reason, I am also glad to see the compensation scheme provided for in such detail in the legislation. That is very welcome.

I am conscious that although this is directly an animal welfare and health Bill, and very welcome in that regard, we are debating it, as it happens, just as the Government's climate action plan is being published. I thank the Minister for the Environment, Deputy Ryan, and his officials, for putting in place earlier today a very useful and valuable briefing with Opposition spokespersons, including me, on climate, at which we discussed and heard directly from the Minister what is in the climate action plan. The reason I mention it in the context of this Bill is that the climate action plan provides a very welcome requirement for policy coherence and joined-up thinking across all Departments on measures to tackle the climate crisis and the climate emergency.

A key part of that is ensuring greater biodiversity through robust and effective legislation on animal rights and welfare and on protection of our wildlife and natural and wonderful biodiversity. Even though I am a Deputy for an urban area in Dublin Bay South, we have immense biodiversity and a huge amount of great natural amenities in my local community of Portobello. Where I live along the canal, there is a huge number of wildlife and a very good service offered by the council and Waterways Ireland, in many ways, to ensure wildlife, such as the swans on the canal and so on, is protected. That is also the case in Dublin Bay, although we can do much more to ensure better water quality and, therefore, protection of marine life in our waters. I am working with the Minister's colleagues in Government on that along with NGOs such as SOS Dublin Bay.

This Bill is part of an overall package of measures that we need to see adopted across all of Government, with constructive support from the Opposition to ensure there are major benefits to our communities from promotion of biodiversity and a joined-up policy like that enumerated in the climate action plan. This will ensure better protection of animals and wildlife and that we have more sustainable cities and communities in line with our sustainable development goals, SDG, 11, to which we have such a commitment.

I will not speak for long. I am not the agriculture spokesperson, but I am very glad to speak in support of the Bill and to reiterate my support, and that of the Labour Party, for this important measure, which will see us finally move to a prohibition on fur farming in the interests of animal health, welfare and rights.

As my colleague said, we will support this Bill because it is long past time that mink farming is outlawed. It is a cruel and unnecessary practice so we will support the Bill.

I will also raise a serious issue in respect of animal welfare in Cork city. Just last week, a horse was found dead on a road in the city. The day before the horse was found, a number of people contacted different organisations concerned about its treatment and the neglect and abuse it had received. It should have been rescued, but was instead found on a road in the early hours of the morning. This was a shocking way for a horse, which is a beautiful animal, to be treated. People were very upset and it is not fair for any animal to be treated that way. It is not fair to children and people to see this kind of behaviour and it is not fair to the communities in which it happens. I know from my colleagues that areas such as Clondalkin have horse projects that have been very successful in changing the way that animals are treated, in bringing a reduction in the number of animals that are being kept on greens and in reducing the neglect of them.

These groups also teach young people about animals and how to care for horses. As a result, they give a lot of young people who might not be into formal education an opportunity for a different type of education, which is something we need to look at.

I would love to see one of these projects in Cork. It would make a huge difference for these animals but also for young people. It would give them an education and let them see what is involved. However, this is not just for those children and young people. It would also give people in urban areas an opportunity to interact at close quarters with animals that they would normally never, or very rarely, have an opportunity to interact with. They could bring in schools, youth organisations and community groups. There are loads of positive benefits to giving young people such opportunities. That is why I would love to see a project like this in Cork city. To be fair to Cork City Council, and I can be critical of it at times, a number of years ago it tried to do this but unfortunately the planning application was turned down. That is something that should be supported. The Minister might engage with Cork City Council about bringing forward a project like that, not just in Cork but nationally.

I thank the Deputy. I am not sure that was relevant to the Bill but it was interesting.

It gave me an opportunity to raise the matter.

There are not many speakers competing so we strained the relevance of the Bill.

Yes, slightly. There is nobody else here so I call the Minister.

I thank the various Deputies for their contributions and constructive support for the Bill. This is the first of a number of stages of bringing it through the Oireachtas. I look forward to constructive engagement on Committee Stage and considering amendments, further assessment and interrogation of various aspects of the Bill to make sure it is robust and fully scrutinised as it goes through the Oireachtas. That is only right.

It is important to re-emphasise that all three of the farms in the State are complying with all the regulations and always have done. They have run very good operations according to the rules, requirements and laws of the State. For many of these farmers, this is something they have been doing for generations. Significantly, they were encouraged to start out doing this back in the 1960s with support as a new enterprise and a new innovative industry at that time. However, life moves on, society moves on and people's perception of what is acceptable from a farming and animal welfare point of view changes. That is very much the situation here. This will have a real-life impact for the three families concerned and it is important to point out that it is not a reflection on the businesses they built up over the years. It is a reflection of how society has overtaken the practice of farming animals for their fur, coats or pelts. It is important, as we finalise this and step forward once the legislation is in place, that there is appropriate recognition of that from a financial point of view, in terms of the impact on the three farmers affected. The Bill provides for that. I look forward to further engagement and thank the Deputies for their contributions and support for the objectives of the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.