I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Tom Hayes, to the House.
Forestry Bill 2013: Committee Stage
Amendments Nos. 1, 2, 4 and 38 are related and may be discussed together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 6, line 19, to delete "0.1 hectare" and substitute "0.5 hectares and five metres in height".
Go raibh míle maith agat, a Leas-Chathaoirligh, agus cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire Stáit.
In general, we welcome the Bill and feel it is far overdue. However, I wish to raise a number of technical matters that I would like to tease out with the Minister of State. The first arises on page 6, line 19, concerning the area of land which would be designated as a forest. The minimum area indicated is 0.1 hectares. Some people would have back gardens of that size, so I feel it is quite restrictive for anyone living in rural Ireland. It is a very limited definition of what a forest would be. I suggest therefore that the figure should be increased to 0.5 hectares and 5 m in height. That would exclude any kind of garden of a reasonable size. I have therefore moved this amendment to try to improve the piece of legislation before us.
I welcome the Minister of State. This an important debate and we had a good discussion on Second Stage also. The amendments I have tabled are entirely in the spirit of the last debate. We can see the role of trees in its full context, including the environment and climate change. We may all be tree-huggers by the time we emerge from this debate. I hope so.
An area of 0.1 hectares is 100 sq. m. Many trees are of great value to the landscape for noise abatement and climate change, which would not be covered by the Bill. My amendment No. 2 therefore seeks to extend the scope. One hundred square metres is a very high threshold, but we need to protect trees that grow in smaller clusters up and down the country as part of a general appreciation of the role that trees have.
I noticed that in the National Development Plan 2007-2013, 19 lines were devoted to forestry in a 300-page document. We are attempting to redress that today by appreciating how important trees and forests are in the Irish context.
My amendment No. 2 seeks to extend the definition of "woodland" to appreciate the valuable role that trees perform in smaller plantations from an economic, environmental and tourism point of view. If we define plantations as only 0.1 of a hectare we might miss some of the most valuable trees in the country.
Before I speak on the amendments, I want to draw to the attention of the House to the fact that today is tree day, organised by the Tree Council of Ireland. It is appropriate that we are discussing the Forestry Bill. We should all mark this day in our own way. With the co-operation of the Department of Education and Skills, a thousand trees have been sent to various schools. Tomorrow I will visit my local school in County Tipperary and plant a tree. If anybody has a free hour tomorrow he or she should plant a tree in their own area. One thing I have learned about forestry is that people in the Oireachtas have a great interest in the environment, and trees are part of the environment. I invite everybody tomorrow, whether in his or her own back garden or in a school, to plant a tree to mark the occasion and, perhaps, to bring it to the attention of younger people in the environs where one lives. I thought I would take the liberty of making Senators and everybody else aware of national tree day.
Amendments Nos. 1, 2, 4 and 38 are being taken together. In regard to amendment No. 1, for international and national reporting requirements, Ireland has defined that a forest area is at least 0.1 hectares, as described in the Bill. We are committed to using the same forest definition for reporting to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. Changing the definition would mean that all carbon stocks previously reported to the UN would have to be revised, as well as estimates provided to the EU in relation to projected levels of carbon sink activity. The 0.1 hectare threshold is also the minimum area for which consent is required for all proposed afforestation projects, as described in Ireland's European Communities (Forest Consent and Assessment) Regulations 2010.
The area definition should also take into account that this Bill describes trees as being either inside or outside a forest. If the area definition is raised, this would mean that all areas below 0.5 hectares could be removed without a licence and without a requirement to replant. From Ireland's perspective, with historically low levels of forest cover, it is important to record as many forests as possible. Reducing the threshold would facilitate deforestation and the potential loss of biodiversity. In many cases these small woods interlink and adjoin the massive network of hedgerows in Ireland and are an integral part of our landscape. My Department has provided grant aid since the early 1990s for broadleaf woodlands at the threshold of 0.1 ha. In addition, many important areas of woodland along rivers and valleys are small in size and any upward movement in the threshold could result in these woodlands being deforested with no replanting.
The alternative proposal as outlined in amendment No. 2 would have the effect of lowering the definition of "forest" to include all trees found in groups below 0.1 hectares and would include the majority of individual trees. From a regulatory and implementation point of view, it is not practical to regulate the felling of every tree in the countryside. Landowners must be allowed to manage individual trees on their holdings in accordance with good agricultural practice based on the exemptions outlined in the Bill.
With regard to amendments Nos. 4 and 38, the terms "woodland" and "forest" are interchangeable and are used to describe groups of trees growing in close proximity. While there are no hard and fast rules, the word "forest" is used internationally to describe trees which are either broadleaf and or coniferous in character. I have, therefore, decided to stay with the terminology "forest" as it is commonly used within the national and international context. The terminology "woodland" is generally used in Ireland and Britain to describe broadleaf woodland. This Forestry Bill is about groups of trees which include broadleaf and conifer species. I therefore do not accept these amendments.
I move amendment No. 2:
In page 7, between lines 26 and 27, to insert the following:
" "woodland" means land under trees under 0.1 hectare with a tree crown cover of more than 20 per cent of the total area, or the potential to achieve this cover at maturity.".
I thank the Minister of State for his response. I welcome the news about tree day. It is also the centenary of Avondale, which I think was founded in 1904 when we first got involved in forestry education, so trees have been important for a very long time. In regard to my amendment, what the Minister of State has said encompasses the spirit of the amendment. The preface states that the Bill seeks to promote forestry in a manner that maximises the economic, environmental and social value of forests, which includes woodlands, within the principles of sustainable forest management, and to confer particular powers on the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine. We want to maximise the value of this asset. That was the purpose of the amendments. I welcome the Minister of State's explanation and I will not press the amendment. By the time we got to amendment No. 38 we were pretty well at idem that we saw the value of the smaller plantations and the broadleaf plantations. I could come back to what trees should be exempted in later amendments, but that is the spirit I share and, therefore, I will not move those amendments.
I move amendment No. 3:
In page 8, line 6, after "afforestation" to insert "and timber production".
This section deals with the general functions of the Minister in respect of the Bill, one of which is to promote afforestation. We want to include also "and timber production", on foot of a number of representations and information sent to us by various organisations involved in the area which felt it was important to recognise the importance of the industry in Ireland and that they needed due recognition in the Bill and in the general functions of the Minister. The reason we tabled the amendment was to support the commercial side of the wood-felling industry.
I have already introduced an amendment on Committee Stage in the Dáil at section 5(l) which reads "to promote the production and use of timber". I believe, therefore, that what is being sought by this amendment has already been adequately addressed within the Bill.
I move amendment No. 5:
In page 9, between lines 1 and 2, to insert the following:
“(3) The Minister has a duty to provide information to ensure the public and other authorities are regularly informed on the role and condition of forests as well as on all forestry activities.
(4) The Minister has a duty to ensure that all Irish citizens and environmental NGOs are entitled to participate in forestry planning and management at local and national level, ranging from public enquiries to environmental assessments and monitoring.”.
This section refers to the specific functions of the Minister. The amendment was tabled following representations by groups involved in conservation and calls for openness and transparency in the work of the Government and all that is done. The amendment does not seek anything untoward. The Department has the information but we want it made public. On every day of the week in the Seanad we have seen Senators call for information on different issues around Government. In fact, all sides have called for transparency and openness on decision-making, etc. We feel that the Minister in this situation should be asked to regularly inform us about what is going on and to provide all possible information on this area.
There is already legislation in place which entitles citizens to information on forestry and to participate in forestry planning.
I remind the Senators that my Department, like all other Departments, is a public body for the purposes of the access to information on the environment regulations, which allows members of the public to request environmental information held by public authorities and which place an obligation on public authorities to be proactive in disseminating environmental information to the public.
Under the Forest Consent and Assessment Regulations 2010, my Department is already required to consult with stakeholders and the general public when deciding whether to grant consent for afforestation and forest road projects. My Department is also an authority for the purposes of the European Communities (Environmental Assessment of Certain Plans and Programmes) Regulations, which require the Department to carry out strategic environmental assessment of any proposed programme for forestry and to consult widely, and facilitate public participation, during that process. In fact, a strategic environmental assessment of the new forestry programme 2014-20 is currently nearing completion. The SEA process includes consultation with all stakeholders, including environmental NGOs.
My Department already publishes and disseminates a wide range of information on forestry, including statistical information and information on the condition of Ireland's forests. Senators may recall that only last December I announced the publication of the main findings of Ireland's second national forest inventory. This information, along with more detailed information generated by the inventory is available at all times on the Department's website. Furthermore, section 13(1) of the Bill provides the Minister with the power to collect and disseminate information and statistics on forests, forestry and forestry-based industry. I, therefore, do not propose to accept the amendment.
I appreciate and take on board what the Minister of State has said. We have an opportunity here to copperfasten the principle of what was said about the legislation. I know from the groups that have contacted us that they feel the provision needs to be bolstered in the legislation. The other legislation can be changed or amended at another time.
Specifically in regard to forestry management and planning, it was felt that the NGOs should have their role copperfastened in the legislation and its basis included in the Bill. Therefore, I will press my amendment.
To clarify, there is access to all of that information. If I thought for a second there was any non-availability of that information I would put in the amendment but the information exists. Any time I have challenged the Department it has always admitted that the information exists. If I accepted the amendment it would only be for the sake of doing so. The information already exists. We want to be open. The Forest Service and the Department are very open, at all times, to giving out that kind of information. I want to send a clear signal to all of the people concerned that the information is readily available.
I welcome the Minister of State back again.
I shall talk generally about the section. It confers the current responsibilities on the Minister and reinforces them. During the Second Stage debate we spoke about some of those responsibilities and the need to promote afforestation, forestry and timber production.
Let us look at some of the Minister's functions. They are to promote knowledge and awareness of forestry; to promote educational training in forestry and related matters; and to promote research on forestry and related matters. These are all very important functions which will, effectively, determine the future outcome of the forestry resource, both private and public. Are there plans to develop forestry? Is the Department looking at ways to do so? Does the Minister anticipate it will be developed down the road? Have we a vision of where we want Coillte and the forestry complement to be in 20 years time? There are 2030 objectives for afforestation cover in the country. What are the other objectives? How many schoolchildren do we want to see in forestry over the next ten years? Do we want to see an increase? Do we want to see additional walking routes developed in forests? Do we want our forestry resource to play an important and integral role in combatting obesity?
Coillte is the largest owner of land in the country and, therefore, has a key role to play. It is a pivotal semi-State organisation. I would like to hear the Minister of State's thoughts on the issue. I am not pressing him on it today. We must consider what must happen in five, ten and 15 years time and set the standard now. Apart from the standard of planting, we must look at other standards and decide how best to use the resource and ensure everybody can share in it.
It is no harm to take the opportunity to echo a lot of what I said in my Second Stage contribution here. It is always very important to lay out our vision for the future. There is great potential for forestry in Ireland and we need to mark out a roadmap.
When the Government came to power it decided to see whether Coillte needed to be sold or retained as a national asset. That was a brave decision and was welcomed by everybody across the political divide. In general, the public at large welcomed the fact that Coillte would stay in State ownership and that the vast resource would be used for the benefit of people. It was important to link what Coillte has with tourism, the environment, schools and to get people to understand the industry more.
I have travelled up and down the country and had an opportunity to visit a huge number of Coillte and private sites. Let me address the Coillte sites. I realised that there is an opportunity for tourism in every parish and county, particularly along the western coast and part of the eastern coast. Some counties have a lot of forestry and there is also great potential in terms of walkways. We all know that tourists want to come here to enjoy walks in the fresh air so we should have more organised walks on Coillte lands. There are great opportunities to develop this tourism sector.
Last Tuesday I was in Galway and met the acting chief executive of Coillte. We spoke at length about the potential of linking Coillte with tourism projects and I found the organisation was very much on board with the idea. That is a roadmap of where Coillte is going. I could talk about this issue for hours because it is such a fantastic forestry project.
The forestry programme that is currently under discussion is out there for public consultation, and the stakeholders are now making their observations. Many changes will take place and we must go to Brussels before the end of the year. We hope to have that new programme ready for 1 January 2015. Land review policies are also under discussion. Some 180,000 acres of land could be planted. A review is taking place and the hen harrier issue is part of that. I have been in constant consultation with the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. We met only last week and may meet again next week. Last night I met a group of people who were concerned about the delay in allowing that land to be planted. There are huge opportunities there. Dr. Nuala Ní Fhlatharta, head of the forestry development department at Teagasc, is chairing a group that is trying to make land availability clearer and give direction on the issue into the future. I hope to have that report to hand before the end of the year. If we have that to hand, we will put a bigger forestry programme in place.
Broadly, there are huge opportunities for employment. I was in Connemara, County Galway last week, which I think is in Senator Ó Clochartaigh's constituency-----
It was great to see in an area like that a very efficient outfit cutting, milling and processing timber that was grown in the south of Ireland. The timber was brought up to Connemara, cut and exported, ready for the market in London. It was great to see the quality of product that was being produced in that mill, and the workers' commitment to life there, and that they could have their jobs in a rural area. That is an example of what is being done with forestry. In ten years time, forestry will be in a great place. People I meet in forestry and with connections to it are very committed. They are not whingers, they are not giving out about rural Ireland, they are simply committed to doing their job and doing it well. They are passionate about growing their trees and growing them well. The milling industry was in dire straits at the end of the recession, when the Irish building industry on which it was so dependent, collapsed. However, it immediately went and found markets in Britain and in France, to which it is now exporting. It is a real success story. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to address these issues. I just want to outline the commitment and to say that there is a commitment at Government level, at Department level, in the Forest Service and by everyone else involved, to drive this industry forward. The potential there is absolutely immense.
I move amendment No. 6:
In page 9, to delete lines 18 and 19 and substitute the following:
“(e) purchase land that is for sale, land swop, or lease for afforestation or any other forestry related activity,”.
This relates to the phrase "or otherwise acquire" used in the Bill. We have concerns as to what is meant by "otherwise acquire", because that is the only difference between what the Government is saying and what we are saying. There are concerns that compulsory purchase orders might be made, and that the State could in some heavy-handed way take over forestry areas, etc. The Minister might clarify for us what he means by "purchase or otherwise acquire", because that is the substantial difference between what we are saying and what he is saying.
The concern expressed during the previous consideration of this provision was that it enabled the Minister to compulsorily acquire land. To reiterate, I have received legal advice that section 6(e) does not provide the Minister with the power to compulsorily purchase land. The term used in the subsection "or otherwise acquire" is sufficiently broad to cater for any type of acquisition, including by lease, other than compulsory acquisition, as I have already clarified. Accordingly, I do not accept this amendment, because there is no need for it.
Amendments Nos. 7 and 9 are related and may be discussed together. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 7:
In page 9, between lines 26 and 27, to insert the following:
“(k) undertake the protection of woodlands on areas less than 0.1 hectares.”.
The section to which we are referring to here relates to the specific functions of the Minister. With this amendment, I seek to add that the Minister, in addition to all his other duties - which go right through the alphabet as far as "k" - would "undertake the protection of woodlands on areas less than 0.1 hectares". The Minister has already communicated his enthusiasm for that and we look forward to his report in January.
I am informed by botanists that we have a problem with woodlands in Ireland. Native woodland is dominated by the mainly broadleafed, native tree species. It is a semi-natural habitat with historical and ecological links to the original wild woods that preceded it. It is a vital reservoir of biodiversity, as well as being of high cultural significance and amenity value. That covers less than 1% of the land area and the remainder is the plantation forest, which is dominated by non-native coniferous trees and now covers about 10% of the State. Its direct commercial value as timber is far greater, but its biodiversity, cultural and amenity value is far less than that of the native woodland. It is native woodland on the sites less than a hectare that is of concern.
I think the Minister is already there in spirit, but it may be necessary to state in legislation that that is one of the things for which he as Minister will be looking out. I know he is already looking out for it, but the problem, as defined to me by some botanists, is that we have put many resources into the 10% and the 1% is really valuable. If much of it is in units of less than 0.1 hectare, society as a whole will support the Minister in that it should be under his care. There is a duty of care here. I do not think it imposes any particular obligations on the Minister, but within his strategy statement, so to speak, the protection of woodlands should also, in view of biodiversity and climate change, have the benign attention of the Minister.
I will address amendments Nos. 7 and 9 together.
The purpose of defining an area threshold of 0.1 hectares is to ensure that the felling of small groups of trees is regulated by licence. To reduce the threshold further would result in the majority of trees within Ireland requiring a licence where felling is proposed. As stated previously on Committee Stage in the Dáil, this Bill is about striking an appropriate balance between protecting the national forest resource and allowing individual trees to be felled without a licence in certain circumstances. The removal of the facility to allow certain trees to be exempted from a felling licence would not provide an appropriate balance.
I would also point out that I have made a number of amendments to section 19 on Committee Stage in the Dáil which recognises the importance of certain types of individual trees which will now require a felling licence. These changes were put in place following a number of proposals from stakeholders and Deputies when the Bill was passing through the other House. While I recognise that I have not taken on board all proposed amendments I feel that an appropriate balance has been struck. I might further add that section 30(2)(c) in this Bill does allow for the list of exempted trees to be reviewed, which could result in the addition or removal of such trees in the future.
In addition, other legislative provisions allow tree preservation orders to be placed on individual trees by a local authorities where such trees have a particular amenity, landscape or cultural value. On that basis, I do not propose to accept the amendments.
I thank the Minister for his reply. We are substantially at one on this and I will not press the amendment.
Amendment No. 8 in the name of Senator Ó Clochartaigh has been ruled out of order due to a potential charge on the Exchequer. Amendment No. 9 which has already been discussed with amendment No. 7 is in the name of Senator Barrett.
I move amendment No. 10:
In page 11, line 1, after "Minister" to insert "in consultation with the appropriate Oireachtas committee".
This amendment was tabled before recent controversies developed. It may be covered by what the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, recently set out. My experience on the transport committee where we chose a chairman for Dublin Bus in all-party harmony contrasted with certain other events which have not been referred to by me to date. If it is of assistance to the Minister, I note that the amendment is offered for that reason. It may be covered by the proposals of the Minister, Deputy Howlin, during the week. The amendment was intended to compliment the Oireachtas on where the new system already works as in the case I mentioned.
Is the amendment being pressesd?
The amendment proposes that the Minister would appoint the members of a committee in consultation with the appropriate Oireachtas committee. I await the Minister of State's reply as to whether the amendment is accepted or we go with Deputy Howlin. It is offered in the spirit that the Oireachtas should not get into the kind of trouble that happened recently. I have no indication that the Minister of State needs this amendment or has any track record like the recent unhappy events. Will we have a new way of appointing people to committees and posts? I offer my amendment in the spirit of how matters work on the committee set up by the previous Minister, Deputy Varadkar, and currently operated by the new Minister, Deputy Paschal Donohoe.
The text, as drafted in the Bill, provides the Minister with powers to establish committees to assist and advise him or her on the performance of his or her functions under the relevant statutory provisions. On Committee Stage in the Dáil, I introduced my own amendment to create section 8(5), which aims to ensure that the composition of committees includes members with the relevant expertise having due regard to social, economic and environmental interests, where appropriate. In addition, the Minister must have the power to establish and dissolve committees quickly when their work is completed.
Committees will only be established for good reason and their composition will reflect the relevant expertise required to carry out the relevant work. To provide on a statutory footing a requirement to consult the relevant Oireachtas committee before any committee is established would be unwieldy given the safeguards already in place. However, I assure Senators that I am at all times available to meet Members of this House to discuss issues relating to my brief. That is where I want to keep it and I therefore do not propose to accept this amendment.
I thank the Minister for his reply.
We have had a great deal of discussion over the last number of weeks on State board appointees. People with oversight roles on committees and boards have a duty to stand up for the rights of whatever groups they represent. If the citizens are to have confidence in the arms and structures of the State, it is important to provide for openness and transparency. Section 9 is very much a gagging clause in respect of the people who would be members of a committee. It shuts down people who might disclose information. Notwithstanding that it might be confidential information, it might relate to wrongdoing.
In light of the principles of transparency and accountability, Sinn Féin has a fundamental issue with a section which would preclude people from disclosing confidential information obtained by them while performing - or as a result of having performed - duties as a member of a committee unless he or she is authorised to do so by the Minister. It provides the Minister with a very strong hand over any person who has ever been a member of a relevant committee. Even if there were underhand things happening or matters about which a committee member was unhappy that were not in his or her opinion in the best interests of the country, he or she would be prohibited from disclosing the information. On that premise, we oppose the section.
I disagree with what my Sinn Féin colleague has just said. One need only look at what is happening in any sector of Irish society where one has individuals, such as those working in the Central Bank, who are poached into the private sector or persons who are providing information externally. When one reads back over some of what happened in the lead up to the bank guarantee, one must question the external factors which hovered above individuals who had classified information given where that information ended up. I would like to see some clarification from the Minister, but I presume that it is not information for the public good that we are discussing. What we are talking about is information used for personal gain.
The full rigours of the law should apply where an individual on a board like Bord na gCon or Horse Racing Ireland or a committee under the aegis of the Minister passes information having left the position or during his or her tenure which is commercially sensitive or, more important, financially lucrative to other individuals and that information is used for the financial gain of outside persons. It goes without question that if an individual is appointed to a State board and feeds information to his or her own sector or colleagues or others whereby it can be used for financial gain, he or she should face the full rigours of the law. I think I understand where Senator Ó Clochartaigh is coming from - he is looking at the public good - but there is a very fine balance between the public good, commercially sensitive information and personal gain. On reading the section, I agree with the Minister of State and presume the clarification will accord with what I have set out.
Unauthorised disclosure of confidential information by members of committees should be discouraged and the penalty for so doing should be dissuasive. I must emphasise in this context the word "confidential". It is not intended to preclude general comment or discussion on everyday issues relating to a committee. We are talking, for example, about unauthorised disclosures of ongoing and sensitive negotiation positions at national or EU level which could be damaging to the State's official position. That is in essence the point Senator Ó Domhnaill has made.
I accept that a balance must be struck between the need for confidentiality in certain circumstances and the need to encourage and not deter people whose participation and contribution to such committees would be of great value. In that context, I took on board the concerns expressed in a number of quarters that the possibility of severe penalties would deter people from becoming members of such committees and introduced an amendment to reduce the penalty to €500 from the original €5,000. That issue was of major concern to many people.
I also reviewed the issue of disclosure of information in the public interest in consultation with my legal advisors. My advice is that the words "or as provided by law" included in the existing text of section 9(1) already accommodates the public interest in that it encompasses the range of legislative provisions dealing with release of information. The important point to note in this context is that confidential information may only be released by the Minister or as provided by law. This encompasses personal information which cannot generally be released in the public interest because personal rights are enshrined in the Constitution, the European Convention on Human Rights and the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. On the other hand, the release of commercially sensitive information is covered in the Freedom of Information Acts. All the aforementioned legislative acts are included in the subsection by reference to "provided by law". In the circumstances, I do not propose to accept the amendment.
I thank the Minister for his reply. I take on board the point made by Senator Ó Domhnaill and appreciate the point regarding the need for discretion around commercially sensitive information. With regard to the particular Oireachtas committee on which I sit, an individual who was acting on behalf of the State is playing hardball about coming before the committee to discuss a case put before us. What happens if somebody has been on one of these committees and the committee wants to bring him or her in because it is not happy about the way the committees are working or some of the decisions that have been made? There are those who would love to get people from Uisce Éireann to appear before a committee to investigate some of the issues that are going on there. We do not know whether something similar could happen on one of these committees which would result in a wish to bring people before an Oireachtas committee and question them. Would they be able to use this section to say that they cannot disclose any information or discuss what happened because there is sensitive information there and they are not authorised to do so by the Minister? In the spirit of openness and transparency, could we be tripping ourselves up in the future? Could people use this as a get-out clause if we want to investigate the work of the committee that the Minister of State is talking about?
That is not the intention.
It never is.
I know it never is, but the intention here is that sensitive information cannot be given out. It has already been pointed out that regardless of whether one runs a business or a Government agency, if one has to withhold sensitive information one must not allow that to be covered, so there is a clear line of distinction. Basically, I want to say that one can give information where one can, but where it is sensitive it cannot be given out. I do not think one reads in the local newspapers some of the stuff that people might hear, as the information is quite confidential and sensitive to a board or organisation. This information cannot just be given out. People could not operate in that environment, particularly public bodies such as Coillte.
Amendments Nos. 11 and 12 are related and may be discussed together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I was sent a note to say that these amendments had been ruled out of order.
Amendments Nos. 8 and 18 are out of order.
I move amendment No. 11:
In page 11, line 34, to delete "may" and substitute "should".
This is quite a simple amendment. The section provides that the Minister may by notice in writing require an owner of a forest to submit a forest management plan. It just changes the word from "may" to "should" because we feel that "may" leaves things quite open-ended for a Minister. I know that when the former Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government was here to discuss septic tanks, we had a very long discussion about "may" and "should", and I do not want to go down that route again. Basically, it is a fact that if the word "should" is used, a Minister has to be proactive and use his or her power, whereas if the word "may" is used, it is a bit more discretionary and leaves things open. That is why we were suggesting this change. Obviously, amendments Nos. 11 and 12 have the same logic and rationale.
I have not spoken on this before. It relates to the management plan. I was delighted to hear what the Minister of State said earlier when he spoke about the potential for forestry and said that it was not all limited to Coillte and that the aim was to encourage private investment. That is what concerns me here. In respect of encouraging private investors, there seems to be much red tape and administrative burden placed on anybody who is thinking of getting involved in business, no matter what business we are talking about. I hope the Minister of State could outline to me what sort of forest management plan he is talking about. Is there a danger that the management plan would force the investor to resort to the work of specialists - for example, to complete a survey of the land? Could they do that on their own, or would the Minister of State be able to give a rough cost and timeframe for the completion of a forest management plan for an average-sized forest? I have full confidence in the Minister of State but I am worried that some future Minister might have a different attitude. I know the way the Minister of State feels, but if we pass legislation that enables a future Minister to impose such a detailed and expensive forest plan, it might deter people who would otherwise invest.
While I appreciate that the proposal in amendment No. 11 to substitute "should" for "may" is positive towards forestry management planning, I believe the use of the word "may" is more appropriate in this section, and for this reason I do not agree with the proposed amendment. The size of a forest can vary from small to very large and it is important that this provision be flexible enough to allow for a selective approach to the requirement for a management plan.
In respect of amendment No. 12, it is implicit in section 10(4) that any plan that is changed or modified will state the reasons for so doing. I would also draw Members' attention to section 10(6) of the Bill, where provision is made for the making of regulations to provide for the implementation of plans. In drafting such regulations, a Minister will have to have regard to the doctrine of proportionality, particularly that any requirement he or she proposes would not be disproportionate to the objectives he or she is seeking to achieve and that reasons are given where plans are rejected or revoked. The intention is to make management plans as user-friendly as possible, and my Department will provide templates and guidelines to facilitate this process. The intention of the Forestry Bill is to have less red tape and to make it easier. A lot of time, effort and discussions happened during the past number of months to make sure that management plans were made easier. What a future Minister might or might not do is not in my hands, but the thrust of where forestry is going in Ireland is to make it easier and more amenable for people.
I thank the Minister of State for that answer, which has certainly put my mind at rest.
I move amendment No. 12:
In page 12, line 5, after "may," to insert "having stated his reasons for doing so,".
I move amendment No. 13:
In page 12, between lines 28 and 29, to insert the following:
"(iv) an assessment of the visual impact of woodlands;
(v) an assessment of the noise abatement impact of woodlands;".
The role of the Minister in safeguarding the environment could nearly be an entire Statute Book in itself, because there are so many duties imposed on him or her.
On the visual impact of woodlands, poems are written by fools like me, but only God can make a tree. Noise abatement is also a notable new feature of woodlands, particularly since we constructed the motorways. The county councils and, subsequently, the National Roads Authority, NRA, planted trees alongside them. I would like such trees to be protected in the assessment because they peform a valuable function and were planted for a good reason. Kildare County Council had its own plantation which was used to supply trees along the motorways in that county before they became the responsibility of the NRA.
In respect of the section, some environmentalists have expressed concern that the screening or first stage is not sufficiently thorough. We should also take account of biodiversity and broadleaf trees. Would it be preferable to carry out a more thorough environmental impact assessment at an earlier stage and is the assessment comprehensive enough? I have suggested the noise and visual aspects as two aspects worth considering. My intention is to assist the Minister of State in his duty of safeguarding the environment, which is the subject of section 11.
Section 11(a) requires the Minister to have regard to the social, economic and environmental functions of forests. To list all of the functions of forests in detail in the Bill, including the visual and noise abatement impacts, could lessen the importance of other environmental functions not mentioned. The terminology "environmental functions of forestry" can include landscape and noise abatement, where appropriate. Furthermore, if an application requires the submission of an environmental impact assessment as described in section 11(d), a wide range of environmental factors must be considered. Therefore, I do not accept the amendment.
No. I thank the Minister of State for his comprehensive reply. This is a comprehensive area and the Minister of State has included it.
I move amendment No. 14:
In page 13, line 7, to delete “6 months” and substitute “1 month”.
This amendment deals with the case of a forest being destroyed or removed, which is a very serious matter. We are all agreed in this House that if a forest is removed by any means, including fire or natural causes, the owners should notify the Minister in writing of the particulars of the destruction or removal, including the area, location and extent of destruction or removal. I would prefer the Minister to have this information within one month rather than six. We do not want people to wander into the forestry office to say they destroyed a forest five or six months ago. It is a matter that requires an urgent response and that is the spirit in which the amendment is proposed.
The period of six months for notification of the destruction or removal of a forest estate by fire or other natural causes is considered reasonable and it is not proposed to reduce it. Forests, by their nature, are generally located in remote areas and damage may not always be immediately noted by the landowner. In many instances, landowners do not live close to their forests and to impose a one month notification period would place unreasonable demands on such landowners to monitor their properties on a monthly basis. The six month period is considered to be a reasonable length of time within which notification should be given and, for this reason, I cannot agree to the amendment. There are many reasons one month is not sufficient. For example, a person may be away on holidays. One month is not a long period of time. On consideration of the matter, we thought the fairest and best period was six months.
The Minister of State is a kindlier man than me, but I will not press the amendment.
I move amendment No. 15:
In page 13, between lines 30 to 31, to insert the following:
"(2) The collection of information for statistical purposes be undertaken by the Forestry Service in a voluntary capacity as per other agricultural commodities.”.
There has been extensive discussion about the potential of the industry. We need to consider how onerous the gathering of information may be on those working in the industry. We do not want to see people using more trees in their paperwork than they are using in their day-to-day business. The amendment provides that the "collection of information for statistical purposes be undertaken by the Forestry Service in a voluntary capacity as per other agricultural commodities". It is the practice in other areas of agriculture that this role is performed by similar bodies and it would lighten the load on those who work in the industry.
This section is important for the collection of statistics and information on the national forest estate which will complement national and EU reporting requirements. The collection of information on forests will also provide information for the Minister on how forests are being managed and will help to determine the direction of future policy, including the provision of financial support and incentives. I listened to stakeholders' comments and on Committee Stage in the Dáil I introduced an amendment that highlighted the main types of information forest owners might be required to supply. The collection of data will mainly relate to information on timber felled. Although other information may be specified in the notice, my amendment, while not addressing all of the issues of concern to landowners, goes some way to reducing the burden on them. Much of the information gathered for reporting purposes is sourced from the Department's records, but a significant amount is also sourced through contacts with the industry and other third parties. Generally, the information is provided on a voluntary basis. However, the provisions of section 13 are designed to cater for situations where information is not readily made available. It is not envisaged that the provision will be used extensively or that it will place an undue burden on either forest owners or businesses.
I move amendment No. 16:
In page 15, between lines 11 and 12, to insert the following:
This section provides that where the Minister is satisfied that trees in a forest are being or are likely to be damaged by vermin, the owner of the land concerned may be served with a notice stating the trees are likely to be damaged by vermin and directing that the vermin be destroyed so far as is reasonably practicable to do so, or that certain specified steps be taken to prevent damage within such time as the Minister may specify. The animals identified as vermin are squirrels and wild or feral animals that are not protected wild animals. I include deer because I understand they are a major threat to forests. Does the Minister have powers elsewhere to control the damage done by deer to forests?
Provision is made for the classification of deer in section 15(4)(c) of the Bill which states: ''subject to subsection (5), a species protected under the Wildlife Acts 1976 to 2012 or the Habitats Regulations". Deer are a protected species in Ireland under the terms of the Wildlife Acts and it is an offence to hunt them without a licence. I am satisfied that adequate provision is made for deer and, therefore, cannot agree to the amendment.
I thank the Minister of State.
I move amendment No. 17:
In page 16, between lines 10 and 11, to insert the following:
“(3) A licence approval will issue in default of decision by the Minister 12 weeks from receipt of the application. This approval, however, will be waived if there is requirement for an Environmental Impact Statement or Appropriate Assessment.”.
This amendment relates to the applications for licences for felling trees. This is to encourage the efficient processing of the licensing regime. For example, the issuing of aquaculture licences is in massive backlog. The industry is in stasis because licences have been held up for five years in some cases in the Department. While the Minister would not wish that to happen with felling licences, we need to ensure that such delays which could affect the industry and force businesses to close do not happen in the future. This amendment seeks to put the onus on the Department to do its business in a forthright and efficient manner. If it does not, the amendment contains a default clause that will kick in and allow businesses to continue with their work. We feel this is a pragmatic response to a practical issue and hope the Minister will take it on board. We can give other examples of where similar applications have been held up because a Department either has not got the resources or is not processing them.
The question of timelines for the issuing of felling licences was raised in discussions I had with industry representatives and growers. I have already made a significant change to the Bill by placing an objective timeline of four months for the issuing of felling licences. In some cases, licences will be issued within a shorter timeframe.
In assessing applications for felling licences, my Department must take cognisance of the fact that forest-harvesting operations and associated activities have the potential to impact significantly on protected habitats, archaeological monuments, water quality, including public water supplies, as well as important landscapes. Consequently, before a felling licence can be granted, my Department consults with a wide range of agencies including the National Parks and Wildlife Service, local authorities, the National Monuments Service and Inland Fisheries Ireland, to assess the potential impacts that may arise from harvesting activity.
This amendment seeks the automatic issuing of a licence within 12 weeks of an application except where an environmental or appropriate assessment is required. However, all applications must be screened for their environmental impact which includes the consultations to which I have just referred. The automatic issuing of a licence where such processes have not been completed could pose significant environmental risks and cannot be contemplated.
It should also be borne in mind that a single felling licence application can cover a large land area incorporating several rivers, lakes and designated nature conservation sites such as special areas of conservation, special protection areas and natural heritage areas. Accordingly, it takes time to assess the possible impact of forest-harvesting operations over such large areas.
It must be acknowledged that I have already made significant changes to the existing Bill by aiming to have felling decisions in four months. Progress against this target will be monitored and it will be clear to all how many licences are being issued. I also introduced further deadlines within which certain specified actions must be taken so that the applicant is given some degree of certainty as to when the application will be processed. This will also ensure they are kept informed of issues that might affect the completion of the processing of their application. I have provided for the publication of decisions made in respect of licence applications. This practice is already in place for approvals of applications to afforest and for forest road works where decisions are published on the Department’s website. The purpose of this provision is to further improve access for the public to forestry information.
Amendment No. 18 has been ruled out of order as it involves a potential charge on the Exchequer.
Amendments Nos. 19 to 22, inclusive are related an may be discussed together by agreement of the House.
I move amendment No. 19:
In page 16, line 18, after “conditions” to insert “that are in accordance with good forest practices”.
This amendment aims to strengthen the legislation. Section 17(4) states “the Minister may at any time attach or vary conditions to any licence granted”. We are proposing that “in accordance with good forest practice” be attached to strengthen the provision.
Section 17(4) allows for the Minister, when granting a felling licence, to require the replanting of trees at such places and of such species. There is no environmental compensation if a very large tree is knocked down only to be replaced by a little sapling. It would be 25 years before the replacement matures. My amendments seek to ensure felled trees are replaced by suitable sized and mature trees.
I have also proposed a time requirement for replanting which will ensure it does not exceed one year. Certain parts of County Wicklow have been made unattractive by stumps left behind after deforestation. From a tourism and environmental point of view, some of the cleared forests look pretty awful. Is it possible to have such sites tidied up within one year rather than having scrubs and stumps? Wicklow, the Garden County, is one of the most scenic counties. Can foresters make a contribution to its beauty by replanting felled trees quickly? Is there an obstacle that prevents them from doing so?
Section 17(5) states “In considering applications for a licence, the Minister may consult any person whom he or she considers to be appropriate”. My amendment No. 22 proposes to include the National Heritage Council and persons residing nearby who may be affected by the visual impact of tree felling.
With regard to amendment No. 19, it is implicit in the Bill that felling licences and conditions will generally be in accordance with good forest practice. However, there may be limited circumstances where licences may be issued which do not fall into the category strictly described as "good forest practice".
For example, there may be valid reasons where tree felling is for social or conservation reasons, which may not necessarily be described as good forest practice. Examples might include a forest owner proposing to remove a small area of forest for the creation of a sports ground for a local village or the felling of trees to prioritise the conservation of a protected species. Although the power to attach conditions is provided for in this Bill, the felling licence application process allows for the owner's objectives to be included in the licensing process.
With regard to amendment No. 20, the specification of a level of maturity of trees to be replanted can be accommodated within the standard conditions for tree planting. Therefore, there is no need for this amendment. With regard to amendment No. 21, it is a matter of judgment, having regard to the individual circumstances of each case as to the length of time that should be allowed for replanting to take place. The key to this Bill has been flexibility and workable arrangements that facilitate all involved in forestry. To impose an upper limit of one year as proposed, although not unreasonable, ties the Minister's hands in cases where a more flexible approach may be required. For example, this could happen where natural regeneration is recommended. My preferred approach is to retain the current wording, which states "within such period as may be specified", and for this reason I do not accept this amendment. Certain management practices for forestry must be taken into account, and there may be disease or other issues that must be accommodated at certain times.
With regard to amendment No. 22, under the existing wording, the Minister may "consult any person whom he or she considers to be appropriate". The wording allows for consultation in an unrestricted manner that could include the National Heritage Council, neighbouring landowners or other interested parties, including local authorities, Inland Fisheries Ireland or the National Parks and Wildlife Service where it is considered appropriate. The range of possible consultees is extensive and I do not consider it necessary to specify individual groups. I do not accept this amendment.
I will not press the amendments. I thank the Minister of State for his due consideration of them and his sympathy towards the sentiments expressed. It is to be commended.
Amendments Nos. 23 to 28, inclusive, are related and may be discussed together, by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 23:
In page 18, to delete lines 17 to 19.
Section 19, as per the explanatory memorandum, enables the Minister to issue an order prohibiting the felling or removing of trees, including exempted trees, and makes it an offence not to comply with the order. There is a list from sections 19(1)(a) to 19(1)(o) of exempted trees. Section 19(1)(a) indicates that a tree in an urban area is exempted, and I am worried by this. All the trees we can see from the Chamber could be exempted. Section 19(1)(b) indicates that a tree within 30 m of a building is exempt, and this should be reduced to within 10 m of a building. Trees are part of our landscape and it is draconian to allow people to remove all trees within 30 m of a building. Amendment No. 28 is a Sinn Féin amendment and I could not possibly presume what my colleagues from those benches would say. My amendments delete the lines giving exemption to a tree in an urban area and within 30 m of a building. The resumption of the building industry is positive but in the past, builders have taken a very cavalier attitude towards trees in the suburbs of Dublin. I am seeking to protect from such behaviour.
Amendment No. 28 arises from some of the representations received by bodies such as the Environmental Pillar. This regards the felling of hedgerows for the purposes of trimming, as long as the tree does not exceed 20 cm in diameter when measured 1.3 m from the ground. We suggest the addition of the clause "or is not a hedgerow of historical, ecological and/or landscape" value. The reason for this is obvious, as there are remnants of ancient woodlands which may have a rich biodiversity. There is variation between hedges, with many delivering significant benefits under many headings, with poor quality hedges delivering relatively less value. Hedges have historical, ecological and landscape significance. They should be protected, which is why we are suggesting this addition to the section.
With regard to amendment No. 23, the exclusion from the felling licence system of trees in urban areas does not involve any change of policy on the part of the Department. It is a continuation of the position that pertains with the 1946 Forestry Act. The rationale for exempting trees within urban areas is primarily based on public safety concerns, which remain valid in the context of this Bill. It is open to local authorities to place tree preservation orders on individual trees or groups of trees which it considers worthy of preservation for amenity or environmental reasons, including veteran trees. The experience generally is that people are responsible for and protective of trees within their communities and there is no evidence of widespread abuse of this provision. Similarly, the purpose of having an exemption from the felling licensing system for trees within 30 m of a building is health and safety; again, it is a continuation of the position that pertains under the 1946 Act. If a tree adjacent to a building is in a dangerous condition, immediate steps must be taken to remove the risk to life and property. In such cases, it would be totally irresponsible to require an application for a licence before removing the tree.
With regard to amendment No. 24, although the Bill vests responsibility for licensing of tree felling in the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, there are cases where other public and State authorities, in the performance of their statutory functions, must be empowered to remove trees without having to obtain a felling licence from this Department. It is important to stress that the exemption only applies to cases where they are performing those statutory functions. In this context, it is also important to point out that for the purpose of this provision, Coillte Teoranta is not regarded as a public authority and must apply for a licence when felling trees.
With regard to amendment No. 25, in the case of the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, the exemption relates to lands held or managed on his or her behalf for the purposes of the Wildlife Acts. To require a felling licence in such cases would be an unnecessary imposition on a body which is charged with the protection of flora and fauna on those lands, the achievement of which may, in whole or in part, require the removal of trees. With regard to amendment No. 26, I do not believe it is either practical or advisable for landowners to first obtain the opinion of the local authority or the National Parks and Wildlife Service, which I presume is what is meant by the national heritage authority, before dealing with trees which have become dangerous to users of the public roads because of their age, condition or due to ground stability.
Senators will recall that during the storms earlier this year trees and branches fell onto public roads throughout the country. This provision is intended to allow land-holders or owners to respond to such occurrences in a timely manner without the requirement to first apply for a felling licence or to wait for an inspection from a local authority roads engineer.
I do not believe that the exemption will lead to the widespread felling of roadside trees. However, in response to concerns raised by stakeholders to the effect that the exemption was too broad and could lead to widescale removal of trees, I made an amendment on Report Stage in the Dáil imposing an additional requirement on landowners to ensure that only trees they reasonably consider to pose a threat to public safety on the grounds of their age and condition can be removed without a licence. The provision is intended to supplement but not replace section 70 of the Roads Act 1993, which already allows a local authority, in its capacity as a road authority, to serve a notice on a landowner requiring him or her to fell, cut, lop, trim or remove roadside trees it deems hazardous or a potential hazard.
Senator Barrett has also tabled amendment No. 27. The purpose of the exemption contained in section 19(1)(m)(ii) is to regularise a situation that many people have unfairly found themselves in whereby they have applied to a local authority in good faith for planning permission to build, for example, a dwelling house, the construction of which involved the removal of one or two trees. In many cases, the permission came with conditions requiring the replanting of a greater number of trees for landscaping or screening purposes and only later have they discovered, as they were about to begin construction works, that they also needed a felling licence for something for which they sincerely believed they had already received comprehensive approval from the State.
Senator Ó Clochartaigh has tabled amendment No. 28. The protection of hedgerows of historical, ecological or landscape significance was raised during consultations with environmental stakeholders. I introduced amendments on Committee and Report Stages in the Dáil to address some of these concerns in so far as it is practical and appropriate to the Forestry Bill. These amendments are reflected in section 19(2) and extend protection for certain classes of trees. However, the Bill is not about regulating the alteration or removal of hedgerows in general. The Wildlife Acts and the Environmental Impact Assessment (Agriculture) Regulations 2011 deal with this issue. Furthermore, there is no national register of hedgerows that are deemed to be of historical, ecological or landscape significance. In the absence of such a register it would be up to the landowners to decide if a tree was in a hedgerow of historical, ecological or landscape significance and to determine if a felling licence is required to cut or remove a tree, and this is highly subjective. Accordingly, I cannot accept the amendment.
I move amendment No. 28:
In page 19, line 21, after “ground” to insert “or is not a hedgerow of historical, ecological and/or landscape”.
Amendments Nos. 29 and 30 are related and may be discussed together, by agreement.
I move amendment No. 29:
In page 21, line 11, to delete “or modified”.
This deals with preservation orders. The Bill allows preservation orders to be modified. I believe preservation orders are preservation orders and should be complied with.
I propose to address amendments Nos. 29 and 30 together. It is important to maintain the phrase "modified" in this section since the phrase "discharge" may not sufficiently cover all eventualities. A person could be served with a replanting order requiring him or her to replant an area with a specific species. In the interim it may become evident that the particular species of tree is subject to the threat of a particular disease or it may be impractical to source a sufficient number of saplings of the particular tree species to replant the entire area. In such circumstances it is necessary for the Minister to be able to issue a certificate to the Property Registration Authority modifying the terms of the replanting order. For this reason I will not be accepting the amendment.
I move amendment No. 31:
In page 23, line 8, after “officers” to insert “competent in the area of forestry regulation”.
This is a small amendment in the area of enforcement relating to officers authorised to enforce the law. Section 23(1) states: "The Minister may appoint such and so many persons as he or she considers appropriate to be authorised officers for the purposes of the enforcement of all or any of the relevant statutory provisions." We believe the relevant officers should be competent in the area of forestry regulation. I imagine the preference of the Minister of State would be for anyone who is to enforce these regulations to be competent but we cannot preclude the possibility that, in future, someone may be sent out who is ill-qualified or incompetent in the area of forestry regulation.
In recent years civil servants have moved between Departments and offices. People who may not have a track record in a particular area have gone to a different section of a Department and so forth. We have even seen people from JobBridge taken on by Departments. I had a question on the Adjournment one day relating to the Department of Justice and Equality, which took on a large number of people to clear the backlog in processing driving licences, for example. Who is to know who the authorised officers appointed in future by the Minister will be? It is only prudent and fair to the people working in the industry and to all the stakeholders involved as well as for good compliance to have people who are competent in the area of forestry regulation. We cannot see why the Minister of State would oppose that.
The use of the word "competent" in this context is subjective. Authorised officers who are appointed will be suitably trained and qualified to act in a professional manner in respect of the duties undertaken under this Bill and will be fully familiar with the regulatory environment within which they operate. That is of major importance and it is a given. They have to be competent and must know what they are going about. There is no doubting that fact.
It is the responsibility of the Minister to ensure that only appropriate people are appointed as authorised officers. The Bill states that the Minister may appoint such persons as he considers appropriate and it is implicit that authorised officers will be suitable. To define "competent" in the legislation could be open to several different interpretations. It is for the Minister to determine who is competent to be an authorised officer, based on the purpose for which the person is appointed. There is a need for these officers to be competent and there is no doubt that they must know what they are going about. This is a complex area and they must be people with a knowledge. That is what this about. Therefore, we are not accepting the amendment.
With all due respect to the Minster of State I do not share his confidence. The stipulation should be copper-fastened in the legislation. Any of us in our various areas and constituencies can get telephone calls every day of the week from people engaging with Departments and at times they question the competency of some of the people who are doing what they are doing.
Amendments Nos. 32 and 33 are related and may be discussed together.
I move amendment No. 32:
In page 27, line 9, to delete “may” and substitute “shall in respect of paragraph (a), and may in respect of paragraphs (b) and (c)”.
This deals with replanting orders. Category (a) relates to trees that have been felled or otherwise removed without a licence - a fairly serious offence and an affront to the Minister and his Department. It states that in that case, "the Minister may issue a licence". I want "shall" there. If somebody removes a forest without a licence, I would not say the Minister "may" do something about it. I am on the side of providing that the Minister "shall" do something about it. That is why that change is proposed. The reason I kept the word "may" in the amendment is that the other cases deal with trees
(b) felled under a licence and, either at the time of such felling or subsequently, a condition of the licence is contravened, or
(c) in the opinion of the Minister, [is] seriously damaged.
I believe that (b) is something of an intermediate offence, and (c) is to do with the opinion of the Minister on allowing the damaged forest to be replaced. If a person knocks down a forest without a licence, the Minister has to take a stronger attitude in response than saying that he may require it to be replanted. That is why I propose the removal of "may".
The changes proposed in amendment No. 32 in respect of a tree felled or otherwise removed without a licence under section 7 would impose on the Minister an automatic obligation to issue a replanting order in all cases without having regard to the nature and extent of the unlicensed felling and the environmental and silvicultural considerations. With regard to amendment No. 33, it is a matter of judgment, having regard to the individual circumstances in each case, as to the length of time that should be allowed for replanting to take place. The key to this Bill has been flexibility and workable arrangements that facilitate all involved in forestry. To impose an upper limit of one year as proposed, while not unreasonable, does tie the Minister's hands in situations where a more flexible approach may be required. My preferred approach is to retain the current wording contained within section 17(4)(b)(v), which applies to this subsection, and states "within such period of time ... as may be specified". For that reason I cannot accept this amendment.
I would be less kindly towards a person who knocked down a forest without a licence, but I appreciate the Minister of State's point. We did in fact discuss the one-year limit, and I accept the Minister of State's statement about different forest practices and so on. I will not press either of those amendments, but I would be harder on somebody who knocked down a forest and was allowed off under ministerial discretion, whereby he or she "may" require its replacement. I am not pressing amendments Nos. 32 or 33.
I move amendment No. 34:
In page 28, line 11, to delete “A person” and substitute “A person under whose direction the activities are being conducted”.
I am open to persuasion on this one. I have been reading it myself. We want to make sure that the perpetrator of a wrong is the person who is prosecuted. I am talking about offences and penalties. What we have at the moment in section 27(2) is: "A person who contravenes a condition of a licence granted under the relevant statutory provisions (for which contravention an offence is not provided elsewhere in this Act) shall be guilty of an offence." We are looking to make sure that the person under whose direction those activities were conducted is also the person who is taken to account. For example, people working in forestry could be given a direction by whoever owns that forest to fell trees in a certain area. That might happen in the normal run of their work. They could be felling trees in contravention of the licence that is granted, so there is a question of who is in the wrong. Is it the person who felled the trees under the direction of his or her boss, or is it the boss him- or herself? We want to state that it is an offence to fell a tree that should not be felled, but we would not want to see, for example, the owner of the forest getting away with unlicensed felling in full knowledge of what he or she is up to while the worker is scapegoated. I am open to the Minister of State's answer on this one.
This is already provided for in section 17(6) of the Bill, which provides that if a person operating under the direction of another person contravenes the condition of a felling licence, both persons will be liable to prosecution. This amendment is therefore not necessary.
I am not going to press the amendment, but I intend to look at the particular section and I reserve the right to table an amendment on Report Stage.
I move amendment No. 35:
In page 31, line 31, after “matters” to insert “including the development of third and fourth level education in forestry”.
This section of the Bill states:
When making regulations under subsection (2) the Minister shall have regard to the following: (...)
(f) promoting education and training in forestry and related matters".
The College of Science, which later became UCD, had the first department of forestry, founded in 1913. As of today, according to the UCD website, there are only six staff, one of whom is part-time. This is a business that supports 12,000 jobs, and we mentioned the last day that Kinnitty, Avondale and Shelton Abbey have shut down. In the Wikipedia guide to forestry education in Europe, it is stated that 28 countries, from Albania to Romania, have scores of universities providing courses in forestry. Somebody did not fill in the form, as Ireland is not listed. We need to build up departments which appear to have been run down. This is going to be a major dynamic sector of the Irish economy in relation to forestry and the environment, and, as the Minister of State has said, from the point of view of visual amenity and so on. There is a special need to develop degree programmes. There are some in Waterford and Limerick as well as UCD, but it looks like an area of education where we have taken our eye off the ball. The purpose of the amendment is to draw attention to the need to build up third and fourth level education in forestry.
The development of third and fourth level education in forestry is highly desirable and something that my Department is happy to endorse and encourage. However, the responsibility for these areas lies within the remit of my colleague the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Jan O'Sullivan. I take on board the points Senator Barrett has made. There is a lot of opportunity for people to get involved in forestry, and there are many courses. Some are already provided at UCD, Waterford Institute of Technology and indeed Ballyhaise College in Cavan. In olden days there was more training. I support what Senator Barrett is saying and I see major opportunities for young people to train and get a job for life in forestry. We spoke earlier in response to an overview of where the forestry industry is going and the potential there. We need trained people and people who are good to go out and advise landowners. One of the issues that needs to be addressed by everybody is the change whereby landowners go from dairy or beef into forestry.
They need assurances from trained people with knowledge of the business. There is a lack of knowledge among many of those involved. Recently, I attended an open day event organised by Teagasc in west Limerick and was amazed that people came to me to say they did not know about certain aspects. They had questions to ask and much information was given. As people must be trained, there are huge opportunities in that regard. I, therefore, endorse what the Senator said. It is potentially a matter for the Minister for Education and Skills.
I am indebted to the Minister of State for his reply.
I move amendment No. 36:
In page 32, between lines 13 and 14, to insert the following:
“(6) The Minister shall report to the Oireachtas on the elimination of destructive diseases causing ash dieback and the destruction of forests by the invasive species rhododendron.”.
I thank the Minister of State for participating in the debate today and the last day. We learned a lot, as he did, when his predecessor as Minister of State, the late Shane McEntee, appeared in the Chamber. At the time we were concerned about ash dieback disease. The section deals with invasive species. I am asking that the Minister report to the Oireachtas on the elimination of destructive diseases such as ash dieback disease and the destruction of forests by the invasive species rhododendron, which represents a major threat to all of the work by the Minister of State and his predecessors. My botanical friends are seriously concerned that the ash could disappear as the elm did before it. There is also a serious problem with beech which is invasive in mature native oak woods in many locations such as Laragh, Rathdrum, Killarney National Park and Lismore. There is a major problem in the offing with the lodgepole pine which is invasive in bog and heathland habitats in Connemara and County Mayo. Coillte's wild Nephin wilderness area contains a large amount of lodgepole pine which is regenerating freely. The rampant rhododendron problem occurs in the national parks in County Mayo and Killarney. Senator Paul Coghlan is seriously concerned about it.
The GAA took its eye off the ball and allowed a shortage of ash to develop. The disease was to be found in imported ash from central Europe. We are all trying to develop a forest that is sometimes invaded by the vermin the Minister of State mentioned and sometimes by invasive species that threaten to destroy much of what is of value. This will undo much of the work done in Irish woodlands. Some procedure such as that the late Shane McEntee had brought forward in respect of ash would allow us to see how our native woodlands are faring with the various threats to their continuation in this valuable part of the environment. We need to put in place a mechanism whereby the invaders can be attacked and the House informed of a serious national issue.
I have no difficulty in discussing these issues, particularly ash dieback, with Members of the Oireachtas. I have had many meetings with a range of stakeholders and do so at any time I am requested to ensure people are informed. This applies to those who own the woods and those who are worried about them. The GAA also has concerns about the future and the amount that could be diseased in the coming years. These worries are ongoing and I make myself available at all times. However, it is necessary to provide for such reporting in primary legislation. The forest service wants to give information on this disease which is a major worry.
I profusely thank the Minister of State.
I move amendment No. 37:
In page 33, between lines 25 and 26, to insert the following:
“31. Provision shall be made for a review of the Forestry Act 1988 to redefine Coillte objectives and operations.”.
The Minister of State is aware of where we are coming from. This is to affirm the status of Coillte because of the fears raised about the possibility of a merger, particularly by the union IMPACT. The Coillte branch of the union has made representations to the Oireachtas committee. The union has expressed the view that the merger of Bord na Móna and Coillte could leave the State forestry company as a small and relatively weak voice within a much larger company focused on energy production. There was a fear that the rebalancing of company priorities, following a merger, would be likely to divert wood to energy use rather than maintaining its most economic advantageous use. This clearly would seriously weaken the economic base of Coillte. The fear is that its focus and raison d'être as a forestry company could be affected. With speculation, it is important to affirm its status while the Bill is going through the House. This would redefine the objective and operations.
As I said when I introduced the Forestry Bill 2013 to Members on Second Stage in the Dáil and as I explained on Committee Stage, the purpose of the Bill is to reform and update the legislative framework for forestry. It is intended to support the development of a modern forest sector which operates in accordance with good forest practice and with a view to protection of the environment. The Bill is about forestry and good forest practice. I emphasise that it is not about Coillte. Its provisions are applicable to both public and private forest owners.
The Government decided in June 2013 that an analysis be undertaken of a merger of Coillte and Bord na Móna. It decided on 24 June 2014, on the basis of an in-depth analysis undertaken by NewERA and the relevant Departments with an input from both companies, that both companies should work towards a partial merger of their businesses, focusing on the areas in which there was an overlap between the two companies. A joint venture between the two companies will, accordingly, be formed to manage their common business activities in biomass, wind energy, shared services, and recreation and tourism. My colleagues, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, considered the analysis and jointly concluded that a partial merger approach to ensure synergy was the best approach at the time and this approach was subsequently agreed to by the Government.
A restructuring of Coillte, overseen by NewERA and the relevant stakeholder Departments, also formed part of the Government's decision in June 2013 and I understand proposals in that regard are being worked on. While preliminary work has commenced on implementation of the recent decision on the formation of a joint venture between Coillte and Bord na Mona in the areas mentioned, pending its completion and the outcome of the restructuring of the company, it is premature to state there is a need to review the 1988 Act to redefine Coillte's objectives and operations. Consequently, I do not agree to the amendment.
Senator Barrett has indicated that he is opposed to the section.
I do not wish to voice my opposition to the section at this time.
I am sure the Minister of State is aware that there has been only one instance of a licence not being granted. If, however, somebody is going to commit his or her land to forestry for life, he or she will want to have some certainty in respect of the matter. As I understand it, the grounds on which a licence may not be granted relate to the protection of the environment; the ensuring of good forestry practice; the preservation of amenities; public health or safety; protection from flooding; and preservation of water quality. These are pretty much all-encompassing in the context of forestry. If a licence is not granted on the basis of the reasons to which I refer, I understand that compensation will not be paid. Perhaps the Minister of State will clarify the position. In light of the fact that there has only been one occasion on which a licence has not been granted - the Minister of State may be aware of other instances - I do not understand why this section is being included in order to cover something which is unlikely to happen. I am of the opinion that the inclusion of the section will create doubt among members of the farming community, particularly if it is the case that someone might object to an area of forestry being cut down because he or she believes it to be an amenity. If a felling licence is refused in such circumstances, the land of the farmer involved will be covered in trees which he may have been hoping to use to fund his pension or develop his farm. He will be stuck with an area of forestry which he cannot fell and in respect of which he cannot maximise the return from his investment. The farmer in question will end up losing money and will not be compensated.
On Committee Stage in the Dáil there was lengthy discussion in respect of the need for the Bill to provide for payment of compensation in circumstances where an application for a felling licence is refused. In light of the concerns expressed, I sought the advice of the Office of the Attorney General. The advice I received was to the effect that there would be a risk of a finding that the provisions of the Bill permitting refusals of licences would be unconstitutional if they failed to provide for compensation. Section 32, for which I received Government approval, gives effect to this legal advice to provide for compensation where it is legally necessary to do so. While the outright refusal of an application for an approval or a licence is infrequent, there are, and will continue to be, instances where an approval or a licence may be refused by the Minister, usually for reasons of environmental protection.
It is intended that compensation will be provided through regulations to be made by the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the consent of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform will be required in this regard. The proposed amendment limits the circumstances in which compensation will be payable. In the case of refusal of a felling licence or a forest road licence, compensation will be limited to the depreciation in the value of the trees that is attributable to the deterioration in the quality of the timber as a consequence of the refusal. This is similar to provisions included in Northern Ireland and UK legislation. Restrictions on the payment of compensation are also listed, including where a licence is refused for environmental reasons. Licences will not be refused without good reason and my Department will endeavour to work with landowners in order to explore all possible options before considering outright refusal. I hope this clarifies the position.
I thank the Minister of State. He referred to regulations outlining the grounds on which compensation will either be paid or not paid. However, the legislation specifically refers to the grounds on which an official may refuse an application for a licence. As stated earlier, these are the protection of the environment; the ensuring of good forestry practice - which is open to interpretation; the preservation of amenities - An Taisce could decide that an area of forestry is an amenity and should be preserved and could be successful in lobbying accordingly; public health or safety - this has often been used as an excuse for many organisations to do very little; protection from flooding; and preservation of water quality. In the context of the latter and as the Minister of State is aware, soil is often disturbed when trees are cut down and this can have an effect on watercourses and an impact on water quality. In that context, we are all aware of the ongoing debate with regard to water basins. Every forestry is located close to a stream or some other watercourse, so there is going to be an impact.
The Minister of State indicated that the Attorney General has stated that compensation could be paid. I may be wrong but section 32(6) appears to run contrary to that and indicates that compensation will not be paid if a licence is refused on the basis of the grounds listed. I cannot identify the circumstances in which compensation might be paid because there is little scope for an application to be refused on grounds other than those contained in the subsection. If a licence is refused and even though the Attorney General has indicated otherwise, it would appear that the farmer involved will not be able to seek compensation. I am just trying to save people from being obliged to make trips to the High Court. If section 32(6) could be removed and replaced with a provision which states that the matter will be dealt with by means of regulation, that would be something. When the regulations are drafted, it will not be possible to cater for circumstances where compensation should be paid because the matter will already have been dealt with in primary legislation.
The amendment presented on Report Stage in the Dáil was drafted, reviewed and approved by the Office of the Attorney General and had regard to an examination of existing legislation on the Statute Book and commentary in the High Court in respect of a recent case. We are proceeding on the basis of the legal advice we received.
The legal advice appears to indicate that compensation might be payable. However, the grounds set out in the Bill are quite specific and pretty much all-encompassing and seem to indicate that the Government will not pay compensation in respect of the refusal of felling licences. I understand that a licence has only ever been refused on one occasion. Perhaps the Minister of State's officials will clarify the position and indicate whether we are legislating in respect of something that would be very limited in the context of actual application.
I have checked the position with my officials and they inform me that they are not aware of any case where a licence was refused.
The information with which I have been provided indicates that there has been one case in the past 60 years.
If the Senator supplies us with the details relating to the relevant case, we will investigate the position.
We ask that the Minister of State examine the matter. We can always vote against the provision on Report Stage.
I thank the Minister of State, who has been here for a number of hours, for his patience, his thoroughness and interest in our environmental heritage. He has been most impressive and I thank him for that. I understand he was equally attentive in the Dáil. I assure him his concern for our woodlands is shared by all in this House. We wish him the best in his task.
I thank all Senators for what has been a worthwhile debate. I am aware of the concerns of everybody in the Seanad and the Dáil about trees and the environment. Forestry is a positive sector for our economy and has potential to grow employment and export of timber. Our main challenge is to make landowners comfortable with the idea of planting their land. This will be a significant change for them and this Bill goes a long way towards bringing this about. I thank Senators sincerely, particular those who affirmed and supported the Bill.
When is it proposed to take the next Stage?
When is it proposed to sit again?
At 1.15 p.m. next Tuesday.