Section 7 was the subject of considerable discussion when we last debated this legislation. Does anyone wish to contribute on this section now?
Animal Health and Welfare and Forestry (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill 2021: Committee Stage (Resumed)
I would like to say a few words in respect of the compensation aspect encompassed in section 7.
The Senator can, of course, contribute.
I welcome the Minister of State. He is new to dealing with the Bill in this Chamber but not to the background of this legislation. I also welcome the three farmers who have taken time off from their farms to come here from Kerry, Laois and Donegal. I am conscious everybody is busy and people have many things going on, but the kernel of this matter is the issue of adequate compensation. Ministers have said the floor of the Seanad is not where we negotiate a final settlement or deal, and I acknowledge that. All I have sought on behalf of these farmers is fair play, and I have no skin in this game, if I may be excused for the pun.
When a Government issues a decree to close any business, and that could be a poultry farm or something else tomorrow, there may be valid reasons for doing so, such as for animal health reasons, for example, but it is important it be recognised we are closing an industry and closing off livelihoods and incomes. Layers of knowledge and expertise have been built up in this business. I know the Minister of State's constituency well and he represents a rural community. In the context of a just transition, we talk about supporting rural communities. Change does come and it is inevitable.
Where I and most Senators stand in the context of this issue concerns the need to support these people in respect of their livelihoods and those of their families and to acknowledge the major investment they have put into the sector. Neither I nor anyone else here is in favour of continuing mink farming. That debate is long over. I am also conscious this matter was debated at length in the Dáil. I have taken the time to look at what Deputies said during that debate. I cannot pass judgment on what they decided to do, but we are members of the Upper House and we have the opportunity to amend, polish or seek to bring some changes to this legislation.
I believe the Minister of State will agree with my main point, but I would like to hear him say it at some stage. We want to stand in solidarity with these people in respect of giving them a fair deal. I am not going to decide what that is, but they must get a fair deal that recognises their enormous contribution. I refer to the costs of lost income, demolition, and environmental and other assessments that must be included in the mix. We have leverage here. I will put myself in the boots of these mink farmers, so to speak, and say they have leverage now. They will have none once this legislation is passed, other than the goodwill and the good words of the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the Ministers of State and the Department officials.
I am not here to doubt the goodwill of the Minister, the Ministers of State or the officials in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. We must, however, view this situation from the farmers' perspective as well. It is grand they have been told there will be a negotiation or some arrangement, but it must be fair and meaningful. What concerns me when these people leave this House tonight or on Thursday night is whether they will have any leverage or any comeback afterwards. We will certainly not have any comeback with the Department.
I acknowledge the extensive work of the Minister of State in agriculture and that he is a fair man to deal with and represents a rural constituency. Regarding tonight's work, I am just trying to set the scene regarding where I am coming from on this issue and where my support is directed. I support a fair transition and compensation for these farmers. I think the Minister of State.
The Seanad has debated this issue at length three times. We have discussed it at length, gone around the House and asked the Department for clarification and to address issues regarding a just transition for these communities. Three communities will be affected, with 35 jobs lost and 35 families affected, and the three farming families will lose their incomes. This will happen not because of economic issues but because of a Government policy decision. We have been trying to hammer out in this House a way to ensure there will be a fair transition for these families, the families of the workers and the three communities overall.
The Minister of State is very much aware that the terminology of a just transition was brought forward to help communities deal with changes in environments because of Government policy. Climate change has been an example everyone has used in respect of the need for a just transition. When it came to this issue, we asked the Department for clarity regarding how it proposed to bring about a just transition for these three communities. We did not get much. The Minister of State has given guarantees on the record and they must be reiterated. The guarantees to take a fair approach to these communities are important. Otherwise, we will be dealing with a scenario where the representatives of these family farms will have one arm tied behind their back when they negotiate with the Department.
I also raised the issue of having a mediator put in place to work with the Department and these three family farms on compensation. We are not here to negotiate on their behalf; far from that. Statements have been made regarding the Seanad trying to negotiate a deal. It is anything but that. We are trying to put a process in place where a fair deal can be instituted for both sides. More important will be how it looks. We pass legislation, we give full power to the Department and then it dictates what will happen. The worst scenario here would be that these families would, unfortunately, end up suffering because of what will happen.
This legislation is not about fur farmers; it is about the agricultural community overall. There could be dramatic changes in the decades to come and this legislation could be used as the benchmark in dealing with those. That is a major fear for every farming sector. The measures to be taken under this legislation might be seen in future as ones that worked and as ones to be repeated. Therefore, this is not just about the fur farming industry but about the entire agricultural community and how it could be grossly impacted by this enabling legislation that could be used as a stick with which to beat it.
Will the Minister of State reaffirm the commitments given by the other Minister of State in the House that a fair package will be put in place for these communities and for these family farms - they are going to be no more because of a Government decision - to allow all concerned to move forward. We all realise there is time pressure associated with this legislation and that we must make progress. What we are trying to do, however, is to be constructive. Articles in the newspapers this weekend were unhelpful, to say the least. If anything, we are trying to fight for these communities and to fight for fair compensation for the farming community. If I am condemned for that, I will be condemned for it. What I am trying to do is to ensure there will be a fair package for everyone.
I echo what we said the last time we debated this Bill. There is unity across this House about being in favour of ending mink farming. Nobody here is calling for an extension of mink farming.
I would have liked to have seen it abolished a long time ago given my experiences as an ecologist dealing with escaped mink and the damage they do to the natural environment. There is a unity of voice in the Chamber when it comes to mink farming. Now is the time it has to be abolished. The Government is introducing legislation to do this. Again, there is a unity of purpose in coming forward with amendments. Unfortunately, they were ruled out of order because they put a cost on the State. They were very sensible amendments on environmental impact assessments to prevent the lowballing of demolition processes, putting in place a training scheme fund for the workers and using five years rather than ten years in the method to calculate compensation. We know ten years is standard practice in other jurisdictions. Colleagues in the House have put forward other amendments, all trying to address the same issue, namely, a fair package for workers who are being told by the Government they are now out of work. The Government has made a policy decision that has resulted in them no longer having a job.
I am looking down the road at climate action and the importance of a just transition. If we really believe in a just transition and it is not just about a sound bite, then it is about bringing together workers, community, employers and government in social dialogue and about the investments needed for the fair transformation of society to a low-carbon economy. In 2018, when the Minister, Deputy Ryan, was in opposition he introduced a just transition Bill in the Dáil. He stated decarbonising our society requires changing everything, including our entire energy, food production, transport and industrial systems. He said we needed to get this change right, particularly in supporting and maintaining workers' rights, and that social justice and ecological justice go together. It is interesting that in his first act as Minister, when he introduced the climate Bill, there was not a single reference in it to just transition. Alarm bells were ringing then for members of the Opposition. The climate committee worked very strongly together. We were given umpteen assurances from the Government that the final climate Act would address just transition. It does not go far enough. Eminently sensible amendments on a just transition with regard to climate action were rejected. If we look at our Scottish counterparts, their climate Act has a just transition principles section. The entire Bill is drafted on the policy of just transition.
The reason I raise this is that we are debating legislation today that will put people out of work. This will also happen with climate action. In this situation we are talking about three farms and 30 workers in total. The Government is offering them a fairly insulting package. As Senator Boyhan said, we are not negotiating on the floor of the Seanad but we are not confident in what the Government is offering the workers. The workers are in the Chamber. They want to hear strong commitments. Once the Bill goes through, the leverage is gone. We only have the Minister's word on whether he will step up to the plate and deliver a just transition for the mink farmers. I have to say if this is the way we are looking at and approaching a just transition, I am very concerned about the road ahead and how we will meet our climate targets.
On the previous occasion I was in the Chamber debating this Bill, I made the point that I am from Dublin and I know it is tough enough already trying to sell climate action to people who are living in energy poverty. Rural Deputies and Senators will go into rural communities that will see enormous changes in how we produce food and heat our homes. What we are doing with the mink farmers does not bode well. I do not envy anybody who can point to this legislation and say we have treated workers correctly because we have not.
There is unity of voice today. Nobody is arguing for a delay in ending mink farming. What we want to hear from the Minister is what he will do to ensure the affected workers and farmers have a fair and decent package that will set a precedent for the just transition in all of the other sectors in which we will have to have a just transition.
Much of today's debate has been pretty similar to the previous debate with the Minster, Deputy McConalogue, and the Minister of State, Senator Hackett. I happened to be in the Chair on the day in question. The points are very well made but I ask that Senators try not to repeat points that were very well made in the two previous debates. This is not to curtail the debate. There are 37 more amendments to be dealt with in the fullness of time. I ask the next speakers to be as brief as possible, after which the Minister will respond.
I have to take the Acting Chair up on that point. There is a degree of repetition but we are on Committee Stage and we are looking for a good, positive response from the Minister. If we get it, I imagine the debate will be curtailed pretty quickly.
I will bring in the Minister as soon as I can.
If we do not get that positive response, each of us here, across all party lines, has the right to stand up and fight for these workers and farmers because this is the opportunity we have. With all due respect, I ask the Acting Chair to drop the point on repetition because it is very much dependent on the Minister's response.
I can bring in the Minister as soon as the House wants.
We will not back away.
The Senator can also contribute after the Minister.
I appreciate that. It is not good when 15 minutes into a three-hour debate the Acting Chair is asking us to shorten our contributions.
To be fair, I just made the point that we had a very detailed debate on section 7 on the previous occasion.
I think Senator Boylan agrees with that point.
-----but we did not get the answers we wanted.
I am not saying 15 minutes in-----
We did not get the answers we wanted and I will demonstrate this now by moving the conversation on.
I will repeat exactly what the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, said on the previous occasion with regard to compensation for the workers. He said the legislation provides for statutory redundancy. That is what the law of the State provides for. He then went on to say there is capacity in the regulations to reflect other costs and the impact on employees. Here is the problem. This says absolutely nothing.
One of the major disappointments I have is that to date the Minister has refused to meet again with the farmers and the workers. As I understand it, the line from the Minister is that he will not meet them until the Bill is passed. I have to challenge this with a very reasonable question. Why would he not sit down with these people given all of the points that have been made by all of the parties about the importance of setting the right precedent for compensation for rural families and rural communities? We need to see more from the Government and the Minister.
There is something unique happening here. This is not being debated on party political lines. Members from all parties have stood up and spoken passionately about the need to defend these people and ensure they are given security, compensation and a chance to rebuild their lives because the Government is shutting down their industry. Like others, I emphasise that I support this decision. We are not in the business of delaying the Bill but we are in the business of ensuring, in as far as we can, that the people in the Gallery and their colleagues get fair compensation.
As a rural man, the Minister will appreciate the old saying about not buying a pig in a bag. The problem is that this is what the Minister is asking these people to do. As a good Sinn Féin representative, I will be constructive as always and I will help the Minister with the words we need to hear from him this evening. We need to hear that on top of statutory redundancy, there will be an enhanced redundancy package based on weeks per year of service. This is what would happen normally in the private sector. As a former union negotiator, I sat down with employers and hammered out a deal. God knows, I would not get what I wanted and nor would the employer but we would work out a deal based on weeks per year of service and that deal would be a fair one. If what we are going to get from the Minister this evening, and I hope it is not because I am trying to be constructive, is more words about capacity in the regulations to reflect other costs and the impact on employees, it will mean nothing.
That means nothing because, to be absolutely frank, the Minister of State could turn around after the Bill is passed and say, "Fair play to you lads. We are going to give each of you an extra €500. Good luck." Let me be clear; I do not believe that is what the Minister of State wants to do. I believe that, like others in this room, he wants to see a fair deal here but I have real fears that the Department will absolutely resist that for the very reasons set out by Senators Lombard and Boylan, including that it would set a precedent for just transition. However, we would not be being fair and honourable to rural communities throughout Ireland if we did not stand up and insist that just transition means just that in this instance.
We are not asking for the Minister of State to negotiate here in the room. We are asking for a clear formula of words that indicates that there will be a proper enhanced redundancy package based on a given number of weeks per year of service. I would really appreciate it if the Minister of State would repeat that comment in his responses. That would be tremendously helpful.
We need clarity on this. The key thing that really worries me is that there is no reason a Minister could not sit down with these people while this Bill is going through. In fact, I would suggest that, if a Minister had done that, we could perhaps have already advanced beyond this stage. The assurances that these workers are looking for are nothing if not reasonable. They need to be delivered. The good news is that it is in the Minister of State's hands to do that. It is very simple. It is in his hands to do that this evening by delivering a clear message as to the detail of an enhanced redundancy package to give assurance to these workers. If he gives that clear assurance, I would hope that all of us could move on and see this Bill through. Without that assurance, I would have to be direct and say it is not good enough not just for the people behind me and their colleagues, but for rural Ireland. There is a lot of talk about rural Ireland in this Chamber but this evening we will see whether there is to be real delivery. That means making a very clear and concrete statement that gives assurance to these people.
What does it do for their confidence when yet another day passes while there is a refusal to meet with them? I do not mean the Minister of State personally but the chief Minister is refusing to meet with them. Their confidence is at rock bottom. They have no faith in this Government to provide them with fair compensation. That is the truth. The Minister of State and the Minister would know that if they met with them and spoke to them. In his response, I urge the Minister of State to simply give a commitment to sit down with them this week to meet their concerns head on and to give them assurance, allowing us to move on. We want to move on. I put it to the Minister of State respectfully that it is the Government that is holding up this Bill by its refusal to engage and to give decent and fair assurances to these families and workers. The good news is that the Minister of State has an opportunity right here and right now to do just that. I look forward to his constructive response.
I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I will be brief because the remainder of this evening's proceedings will be very much determined by the Minister of State's response and contribution. I will not pre-empt that. The majority of the money that has been invested by the three farmers involved was invested on the basis of specifications provided by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. They went to enormous expense to create the fantastic facilities they have, which have satisfied the Department's inspections. If the Department had such a major input in the spending of this money, I plead that it now be fair to these people in the unravelling and unwinding of their businesses and in compensating them for the enormous expense they went to in order to run such a good show. They continuously met with the Department's approval, but at enormous expense.
These individuals aside, we are continuously pumping money into rural Ireland to create jobs. Why not let the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine pump in money on this occasion to maintain the jobs that are already there? Why not give these people the seed capital to set up alternative enterprises, thereby maintaining the employment they already provide to their current employees? Why can we not do that now, at square one, rather than letting those jobs and businesses be lost to these remote rural areas before some other Department has to pump in money in six months' time to recreate the jobs that are already there? We need to avoid all that additional cost, time and pain. I will not say any more at this stage because I want to hear the Minister of State's address.
We have spent a good while on section 7, the reason being that it is the kernel of this legislation. This is the second House of our Parliament. It is really a blocking House and that is what the House has done. It has held up this legislation and, in my view, it was right to do so. I have not met any of these farmers. I do not know them but everybody knows when they feel something is not fair. The view has been expressed right across this House, by Members from all parties and by Independent Members, that what has been offered to workers and to the farmers and employers is not fair. I am disappointed that the Department has not met with the farmers in recent weeks. This House has given ample time for those meetings to take place.
This Bill strikes me as being much the same as the Public Health (Alcohol) Act 2018. That Act went through this House and put a great imposition on small retailers the length and breadth of this country. It put impossible restrictions on some of the small retailers who sold alcohol. This House saw that at the time. The Government was not too happy with the House, just as I believe it is not happy that this Bill is being held up. This House feels that there is an injustice here. As previous speakers have said today and during our last session on this Bill, there is not a sense of fairness in this Bill. I ask the Minister of State to give an indication to this House of what is going to take place after this legislation is passed or that he will stop the progress of the legislation for another while to allow meetings to take place. In other words, I ask him to give an indication that something positive is going to happen.
The last time I spoke on this Bill, I said that the hardest thing my wife and I have had to do was to close down a business. It is not that easy to close a business. Everybody comes after one, including creditors, Revenue, people seeking redundancy and everybody else. One needs a fair pot of money to close a business. As has been pointed out, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is setting a precedent in closing down these farmers' businesses. Some of them have been in business for 35 years. That is a long time to spend building up a business. It takes a long time to build up a business. We have heard that every assistance will be given to them to create alternative businesses. If these alternative businesses are going to be so lucrative, they would already exist and employ people, but they do not exist. When one considers the amount of money needed to develop an enterprise in an area such as poultry production, egg production or pig production of a magnitude comparable to the enterprises of those people who are now making a wage and employing people, the amount of money they are getting to close down pales into insignificance.
We cannot have bicycle shops and all of that stuff all over the countryside. Everybody knows that only one such enterprise is profitable in a given area. Few enterprises like coffee shops along walking routes make money to any great degree.
I ask the Minister of State to treat these people in a very fair manner and look very favourably on what might be the outcome of his negotiations with them, even if it is after the legislation is passed. They are not being treated well, to be quite honest. The only obligation on the farmers is to pay statutory redundancy to workers. There is a good bit of talking to be done regarding the Bill. As previous speakers have said, this could be the start of things to come in regard to the just transition that has to take place. If it is, we are not getting off to a very good start with this Bill. I hope the Minister of State gives a strong indication to the House that there will be changes to what we have heard heretofore.
I thank Members for being here today and for their level of engagement on this topic. It is my first time to address this issue in the Seanad. I am doing so in place of the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, and the Minister of State, Senator Hackett. I am aware of the concerns which have been articulated by Senators. I would like to acknowledge the points made by Senators Boyhan, Lombard, Boylan, Gavan, Daly and Burke. I read a previous debate in the House on this matter before I took this debate today. The Senators are absolutely right. The role of the Seanad is to be a check and balance and to highlight issues and concerns that Members have or which people have raised.
I have also heard colleagues in the House across the political divide make the point that this is not the House for detailed negotiation, yet some of what has been sought is detailed negotiation. That can be dressed up. It is all well and good to be reasonable in making points, but this is a Bill that is looking at a process. I take on board the points and concerns raised, but there are limits to what the Bill can do in terms of the finer level of detail it can go into.
The Minister has already made a decision. In response to Senator Lombard, I am happy to reaffirm the commitments that have been made. With regard to the workers, a decision was made to make extra payments to fur farming businesses for distribution to the workers as part of the compensation package. There is an extra fund to support retraining and reskilling requirements. This scheme will address the specific needs of employees in that regard. The detail of the scheme will be in the regulations.
Like all primary legislation, the Bill should not have a level of detail that is very prescriptive. There is a package for workers. The matter of five-year averaging was raised, and it was suggested that the relevant period could be ten years. In terms of seeking reassurances, the independent assessor will have a key role to play. If individual businesses or farmers feel very strongly about the ten-year period, as they do, an offer has been made to them to come back with more details that show the cyclical nature of the business. That will be considered as part of the process. To have a five-year averaging period is unusual; the normal period is three years. Again, we are getting into a level of detail that is a challenge. The cost of environmental assessments, including demolition costs, is a point that has been made previously.
The Bill is about two key commitments in the programme for Government. It is enabling legislation to get us to a point where schemes can be put in place, work can happen and certainty can be provided. I want to acknowledge how hard this has been for individual farmers and staff. As hard as the process has been, I imagine the length of time the uncertainty has continued is a contributory challenge to this. People want the best deal for themselves and their businesses, families and workers, but they also want to get to a point where we can move to the stage of getting through the finer detail as part of the regulation and independent process.
Senator Daly referred to the role of the Department in the specifications in the Bill. Due to the nature of the business activity concerned, it is absolutely right that there is a high level of specification. I acknowledge that the businesses and farmers involved carried out their business to that standard. Plenty of inspections were carried out, as one would expect. All requirements were met and that business was done very well. The decision has been made. It is fair to say that there is cross-party agreement on the cessation of fur farming in Ireland. We now need to work through having legislation that puts in place a process that allows us to bring out the regulations to make that happen.
I thank the Minister of State for his response. I have a couple of queries to try to tease things out a little further. The Minister of State spoke about "extra payments" and funds for retraining and reskilling. I do not think I am misquoting him. First of all, I want to acknowledge that he is trying to be constructive. I am not trying to be difficult, but "extra payments" can mean absolutely anything. This happens less and less these days, unfortunately, but what normally happens when people lose their jobs is that good employers negotiate a package which is based around years of service and compensation per years of service. The Minister of State has not said those words, yet those words do not commit him to any particular amount of money but rather a principle that has been well established across our economy for many decades. The difficulty with "extra payments", to use the words the Minister of State did, is that they can be as little or as much as possible. It is guesswork.
If the Minister of State addressed the other issue that I and others have raised, and committed to meet farmers this week and sit down with them to describe what the extra payments could be, that would help us enormously. I am trying to be constructive. Just to be clear, there is absolutely no reason a Minister or Minister of State should not sit down with these people now. There is no legal impediment. The lack of such a meeting is at the heart of many of the difficulties we are collectively trying to deal with today.
To be helpful, it is important that the Minister of State elaborates on the phrase "extra payments", with specific reference to an enhanced redundancy package. Those three words would be very helpful. If the Minister of State went on to say that such a package would be based on additional weeks per year of service, that would be even more helpful. This is not pinning the Minister of State to any particular amount of money. We are not negotiating; rather, we are setting out the principles around which a negotiation should take place. Any decent Government would agree to those principles. They have been well established in industrial relations for a lot longer than I have been around. It would be helpful if the Minister of State could comment on that and finally, and crucially, agree to sit down with these people. There is no reason he cannot do that.
Regarding the independent assessor, the Minister of State might briefly outline whether the role is specified in the Bill, whether work has been done already and whether the powers of the assessor to assess the details of the final outcome will be set out via ministerial regulations.
In terms of a period of three, five or ten years, the Minister of State said there had never been a ten-year period.
I do not know why ten years are unprecedented. I do not know where that comes from. Perhaps an average of three, five or ten years could be taken. This is the first time this has happened.
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Heydon, for his contribution and welcome him to the House. I have spoken in the Chamber a number of times and my contributions are well known. All anybody is looking for is fairness - across the House. The reality is there is not fairness and the issues have been raised by my colleagues.
I thank the Minister of State with regard to the redundancy issue but I ask for more clarification. I fail to understand the compensation because there are highs and lows in businesses. Compensation based on a ten-year period would give a fairer reflection. There is evidence to back that up. I spoke to the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, on a couple of occasions he was here with regard to the lines of communication. They have been lacking, to be honest. There is no point in saying anything different.
I have been in business for a while. There is a 27-page report. The cost is six figures in excess of €100,000. However, no representative of Grant Thornton has stepped on any of the farms. I do not get that. I fail to understand it. It does not give a fair reflection of what is on the ground. As Senator Daly outlined in his contribution, significant investment has been made in specs and investment in the individual farms. That has not been recognised.
There is an ongoing issue across the House. The Minister will be well aware, from his own constituency, of the example I will give. Some 40 families are affected. A local school, as a result of the closure of these farms, will lose a teacher. They are the impacts on rural Ireland. As an Oireachtas Member from west Galway, I am fairly familiar with the impact that the loss of a teacher has on a rural school. I welcome the Minister of State's earlier comments but I ask for clarity on a couple of issues. I would appreciate it.
I acknowledge the Minister of State and thank him for his contribution this evening. We have had hours on this debate and building trust has been a big issue for us. I acknowledge the contribution made by my learned colleague from Galway, Senator Crowe, about the lack of communication. That is a significant issue we have had here.
When we have met the farmers, the Minister gave us the impression there would be engagement. The level of engagement has not been satisfactory and because of that, we are here for our third session. We will probably be here until 10 p.m. That is an unfortunate limit because of the lack of communication.
I will go back to my core point about a precedent. The Minister of State mentioned terminology. The precedent would have been five years for a compensation package but there has never been a precedent of us closing an industry. That is key. This is the first time we have stepped up and said Government policy dictates that the industry is gone.
We do not know what will be next. My major fear is we do not know what industry will be rolled out next, for whatever view, and will be gone. We need to look at where the precedent goes. Will this be a stick that will come back to beat us? The Department's report stated that there was a cycle in this industry. We are debating what that cycle is. That is a very fair debate. We take the view that the Department says it is five years. We say it is ten years. The Department will not include 2021. Why not? It was one of the best years. The years 2016 to 2020 are included but not 2021. An awful lot of issues need to be looked at.
Lack of trust has become a considerable issue. I acknowledge the Minister of State's contribution and it is very important that we have that kind of contribution but that trust needs to be built from tonight forward. Three family farms are effectively closed because of what we have decided to do. We need to make sure that we support them and their communities in order that they can move on towards a just transition. That kind of approach is required.
I echo what others have said when the Minister of State referred to the three-year method for calculating compensation. With regard to our amendments that were ruled out of order, I am aware that a ten-year cycle is taken in other jurisdictions. As others have said, it appears that the years selected on which to base the compensation seem to be the loss-making years. Will the Minister of State elaborate on where the five years came from? Why are we not looking at how this was done in other jurisdictions when it came to closing down this industry and using the ten-year method?
The fact that the Department was reluctant to visit any of the farms prior to this legislation is concerning. My understanding is that, initially, the Department suggested using Google Maps to calculate the costs of the demolition. Will the Minister confirm that is correct? Will he confirm that only one of the three farms have been visited by the Department? That is only on the back of the persistence of the farmers in begging and pleading with the Department to come out to look at the farms before passing this legislation and the calculation around the demolition.
One of our amendments called for an environmental impact assessment because we do not know whether there is asbestos on site. There are concerns among the farmers that there would be low-balling in terms of the compensation for the demolition. Will the Minister outline why the five years happens to correspond with the five loss-making years? If one's compensation is based on that and one is making a loss, one's compensation will not amount to very much. Is it true that the Department initially suggested using Google Maps to calculate the demolition costs? Three farms is all we are talking about. Why could the Department not visit all three to get a proper gauge of the demolition costs?
I thank the Minister of State. He did not go quite far enough but I appreciate he is working with other Ministers and I respect that. Other Members have made some points. Before I make my own, I am conscious this is not a judicial appointments Bill. We could go on talking about this for the coming months, as we have done in the past. I do not think anyone wants to do that. We have considerable business to cover tonight, clearly, on the basis we are making progress. We will not complete it tonight. That is a certainty at this point. That is unfortunate.
There is a considerable amount to get through. I would like to get past this section. Why not have the best five years of the ten-year cycle? There were good years and bad years. The Minister of State knows there are good years and bad years in farming. There are seasonal and breeding conditions. A considerable number of external conditions impact on income.
If something is important, one can say it time and again to drive the message home. I do not have a difficulty saying that. These people today are doing something that is totally within the law. These people have licences to operate. They are fully compliant in terms of all the regulatory and Revenue requirements. They operate within the law. A very important point to make is that these are law-abiding entrepreneurs. They are in this sector but it could be any sector. Sometimes, we lose sight of that. These people are not operating in some sort of covert way. They are decent, proper, professional people. Whether I like their trade or not, is not a matter that should come into the issue. We know they are looking for fair play.
The Minister of State might indicate whether the draft regulations have even been drafted. I presume clever people in the Department are working on them because this is important. I accept we are not negotiating a final settlement on the floor of the Seanad but people spoke earlier about trust and confidence in the process. It is about leverage. That is all they have. They have the leverage of this House. Ultimately, we will be called upon. We will be voting on this. We will have an opportunity to stand up and be counted in respect of our commitments to these farmers, just transition and our commitment to rural communities and rural enterprise. That is a certainty too. I am trying to put myself in the boots of these farmers, so to speak. How can they go away tonight having absolute confidence they will get a fair crack of the whip that acknowledges their investment, their future and that of their families and employees? I ask for even greater flexibility to be afforded in terms of the years that would be used in the cycle to calculate decent and fair compensation for them.
I thank Members for the many and varied points they made. Senator Gavan asked a couple of specific questions. I go back to his earlier statement that he is not asking to negotiate in this room. I will not negotiate in this room; I do not have the mandate to do that. I will bring the points raised in this forum back to the Minister. I accept the points made about trust, communication, frustration and concern that have been well articulated by Senators.
A point raised by a number of Members, including Senators Burke, Boylan and Lombard, is the profitability assessment. Whether we are talking about three, five or ten years, this is about a process to determine the value of the company. Whatever year or time period is chosen, in terms of valuing a company, a three-year cycle would normally take away that element of a particular year being good or bad. To my mind, three years would be the norm. We are talking about five years. If the farmers involved want to make the case for ten years and argue that, given the cyclical nature of the business, there is a cycle and pattern every ten years, they can bring forward the evidence to prove that, we will look at it and that will feed into part of the process. I give a commitment in this Chamber that if a strong case can be made for why a ten-year cycle is suitable for this business, and not just in respect of profitability, price of pelts and different countries, and a pattern can be shown, it will be looked at and that evidence will be fed in.
This is probably part of the problem when looking at primary legislation that deals with specifics. We can get into a level of granular detail that is not the ideal way to use primary legislation. Getting into that level of detail is effectively negotiating on the floor of this House. I respect everyone's bona fides and understand why they are making these points. At the back of this, there is that concern about leverage.
Senator Boyhan spoke about the point of the regulations. There is a first draft of the regulations. I understand farmers have been supplied with them. Ultimately, there will be no regulations without the legislation. The legislation must be passed. Any drafts of regulations are just that - drafts - until such time as we have legislation passed so that we can work on that final detail.
Senator Burke asked about the independent assessor. The assessor will be appointed as part of the regulations to work through some of those finer details. Regarding the case the Senator mentioned, Department officials have visited all three farms. There are maps, and mapping systems are used as part of an ongoing process. Our inspectors have been visiting these farms and there is knowledge of them going back years. My understanding is all of the farms have been visited.
Regarding asbestos, again, we are getting into a level of detail. Obviously, when determining costs for demolition or repurposing, the state of those buildings or what they are made from would be a part of that.
The Minister of State clarified something that did come as a surprise to me. I certainly did not know it. He confirmed to the House that draft regulations were prepared and said his understanding is farmers were supplied with them. Will he confirm that? Would it be possible for Senators to see those regulations between now and the next consideration of this Bill?
I am not saying the Minister of State is not correct but he is saying Department officials visited all the farms, but it was not about fur farming. In terms of inspections around fur farming, has anybody visited all three farms regarding demolition costs? My understanding is the Grant Thornton report, which cost €100,000, was a desk-based exercise from Dublin that did not involve anybody from Grant Thornton visiting any of the farms. The Department then recommended Google Maps and only one farm was visited in terms of demolition costs. I do not doubt Department officials have visited these farms for years to inspect whether they are within the letter of the law, but were all three inspected in terms of demolition costs?
In respect of the compensation period, the Minister of State made an equation with businesses that are taken over or that are for sale and said three to five years is the norm. In the majority of those cases, a company that knows it is going to be sold or taken over in the next two or three years takes measures to increase its sales or do something to make itself more profitable. However, those people did not have that timeframe. This came as a bolt out of the blue to them. The Minister of State is not comparing like with like when he says the compensation period should be three to five years and anything outside of that has never been heard of. In many cases, companies have a period in which they can boost their sales or profitability but that period is not afforded to those people at all.
I will start with Senator Burke's point. I was responding to his question about where the three to five year period came from. That is the general principle. It is about identifying the profitability of the company. To use ten years, it would need to be proven that the business had a cyclical nature. It is about trying to get away from one set year that might have been a bad year. Three years would normally give a fairly good mix of good, bad or medium years. Five years is a bigger spread and is the time period proposed by the Department, but if there is an example to say the nature of this business very clearly involves a ten-year cycle, where it has shown itself to be fairly stable despite ups and downs over the course of those ten years, evidence of this should be put forward and it will be looked at. I do not think anybody in this Chamber is trying to discount that, but if a case is to be made for ten years, which would not be the norm because it would be a very long period of time to use to assess the profitability of a company, it would need to be proven why that industry requires that.
In response to Senator Boyhan, it goes back to the point about drafts. I understand the farmers were furnished with them. The draft regulations are not regulations until legislation is passed.
I understand that
Our job here is to look at that legislation and see how we do that.
To respond to Senator Boylan, part of my earlier response was that Department officials have a good knowledge of these firms because of their inspection system down through the years. I am not familiar with the exact role Grant Thornton played in that in respect of visits, but we are dealing with Department officials who know these firms well and who have regularly visited them down through the years.
I apologise to the Minister of State. Unfortunately, I had to take an urgent family call. I was not here when he responded. It is for that reason I need to ask the question again. He may very well have answered it. The clarity I am seeking is in respect of his confirming that there will be an enhanced redundancy package for the workers and that it will be based on additional weeks' pay per year of service. To explain that, statutory redundancy, as the Minister of State will know, is two weeks' pay per year of service. I would expect the package we are discussing to be based on additional weeks' pay per year of service. If that principle could be established, it would be helpful. I apologise again for having to step out.
Going back to the earlier question about the draft regulations, these are clearly draft regulations and, therefore, not the regulations proper, which cannot come in before the legislation. I understand that process. The Minister of State has confirmed to the House the position on the draft regulations. Of course, they will always evolve and move. I accept that. The Minister of State has confirmed that the draft regulations were sent to the farmers. The continuation of that question is whether the Minister of State can make available tomorrow a copy of those draft regulations. That would give us some comfort in the direction in which the Department may be going. I would like to look at them in the context of my ongoing review of this legislation and further amendments that may be due or coming the Minister of State's or the Department's way. It would therefore be very helpful if the Minister of State could confirm this evening that he will make those draft regulations available to us tomorrow.
To respond to Senator Gavan, that is no problem. The point I made when the Senator stepped out was that I had written out three specific sentences he wants me to put on the record of the House. However, I brought the debate back to the Senator's initial contribution, in which he said he was not asking anyone in this room to negotiate. The level of detail he is talking about, to my mind, constitutes negotiating. I will not get into that level of negotiating here tonight. I do not believe that is what primary legislation is about.
I will raise with the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, the points Senator Boyhan raised about his desire to see the draft legislation. This is not my side of the Department and it is not in my gift to talk about that here, but I will bring that point back to the Minister.
I thank the Minister of State for his response and his understanding that I had to step out. I am disappointed, however, because I am making a clear distinction. I am not asking the Minister of State to negotiate here in the Chamber; I am asking him to agree principles of negotiation. A long-established principle of negotiation in industrial relations is that the allocation of an enhanced redundancy package is agreed based on years of service. For example, some years ago I negotiated a package for a group of workers that guaranteed them six weeks' pay per year of service. The statutory entitlement, as the Minister of State will know, is two weeks' pay. Another package in which I was involved guaranteed nine weeks' pay per year of service.
The point is that the principle is of an enhanced package based on years of service. Let us be clear: I am not asking the Minister of State to negotiate what that package will be; I am simply asking him to be explicit about the principle of how he would go about negotiating that package. The difficulty we have here is clear and it comes back to Senator Boylan's and Senator Lombard's point about what a just transition means. If we cannot establish decent principles as to what a just transition means for when other jobs are lost, which we all acknowledge will happen in rural Ireland, then we will have done a huge disservice to rural Ireland and the communities living there.
I do not see why the Minister of State cannot simply acknowledge that the good principles that have been in existence in industrial relations for many decades will be applied in this case and that an enhanced redundancy package will be negotiated based on additional weeks' pay per year of service. I am not asking the Minister of State to negotiate what the number of additional weeks will be; I am asking him to accept the principle. If it is good enough for the private sector, which it has been for decades, surely to God it should be good enough for this Government, which is closing this industry down.
I am sorry to keep coming back to this issue. I understand where the Minister of State is coming from. I know he is not coming new to this, but this is his first time debating this legislation in Seanad Éireann. I fully understand and respect that.
We talked earlier about trust and communication. I am a Member of the Houses of the Oireachtas. We are Senators. I have made a very simple request. The Minister of State has confirmed to the House that the draft regulations are in operation and have been prepared. I accept that they are evolving and moving and are fluid. By their very nature they have to be. I understand that. They are in draft form. I understand that. They cannot be finalised until the legislation is finalised. I understand that.
However, the Minister of State has also confirmed that these draft regulations will be circulated to the farmers, whom we are representing, who are in the Public Gallery and whom we are talking about and supporting. To bridge that communication and that trust, I am simply asking the Minister of State, his official here or somebody else to say there is absolutely no problem with this. There should be no problem with looking at the draft regulations. It would give us some comfort and understanding in the direction in which the Department may be going.
I do not want to tie the Minister of State's hands in respect of the regulations. I fully respect that. He says he will go back to the Minister and relay our concerns to him. I understand and appreciate that Deputy McConalogue is an exceptionally busy Minister and that there are an awful lot of other demands on everyone in the Department. All I am asking is for somebody to give an undertaking or to give someone else an instruction to send a copy of the regulations, albeit in draft form, to us tomorrow in order to give us a greater understanding in our preparatory work. We will be back in here on Thursday and, by the likes of it, all next week and possibly the week after. The more we can get co-operation on all sides, including me, work this through and have greater understanding, the better in order that we can wrap this thing up as quickly as possible.
I will follow on from Senator Boyhan's comments on the importance of trust and communication. I know it is the Minister of State's first time debating this legislation in this House. When it comes to trust and communication, however, the deadline for Report Stage amendments was today at 11.30 a.m. That is the indication the Department is giving in respect of listening to the Members of this House and what will be accepted and not accepted tonight. That does not build trust and is not very respectful of this House, but it is not the first time we have seen that happen. That is not the Minister of State's fault; it is just the experience of the Opposition under this Government.
Senator Boyhan talks about getting a look at the draft regulations. That would be easier. Yes, they are in draft form and are evolving. Given, however, that it is very unlikely the Minister of State will accept amendments because, as I said, the deadline for Report Stage amendments was 11.30 a.m. this morning, I think he can share the draft regulations with us. It is unlikely the legislation will change and, therefore, it is unlikely the regulations will change very much. It seems that people are set in their minds as to how this is going to go.
If the Minister of State were to share the draft regulations, I think it would go a long way towards building trust across the House and everybody who has concerns for the workers and concerns about the precedent of ensuring that a just transition is not just a sound bite but actually a process with principles. It would be really helpful if the Minister of State could give that commitment on the draft regulations tonight.
Senator Gavan and I are splitting hairs somewhat. His interpretation of negotiation and mine are somewhat different. He does not think what he says involves negotiation; I think it does. I have made my view on that clear enough. We can keep talking about it but I will not get into that level of detail here tonight.
As for the draft regulations, I have committed to bringing to the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, the Senators' request to see the draft regulations and that he would furnish them. Senator Boyhan talked about trust. To my mind, when Senators have talked about that trust it has been largely about the trust of the farmers, and I accept that. If enough Members of this House are raising these points, that trust is not what it should be. My understanding, however, is that the farmers have been involved in this process from the start. The fact that they have been supplied with the draft regulations is an indication of that. I was given a commitment that they would continue to be part of that process all the way through. Having the draft of the submissions would lead me to believe that that will continue to be the case into the future.
The Minister of State has set out his position, and I respect that. He has a job to do, as do I. I will take away one thing. I am not asking the Minister of State to reply to me. I have listened to what he has said and he has clearly set out his case. My takeaway from that is the Minister of State will take this request to the officials and Minister tomorrow, and that is fair enough. One way or the other, I ask that they let us know the position tomorrow because we now need to prepare our debate and move on. I know where the Minister of State is coming from, as well as his mandate and the constraints on him.
I ask the officials to come back to tomorrow at some stage and indicate the position. I do not foresee that there will be a difficulty. There are many ways of getting this information. If the information has gone to farmers and everyone is discussing it, I do not know why the people writing the legislation do not have that information. At least the Minister of State will, kindly, take my request away. All I ask for in return is confirmation one way or the other for Members on the position regarding that request.
I want to come back to the Minister of State on this again because I can understand why people are so worried. To be clear, I do not think I am splitting hairs. The difficulty is that, over many years when the State let people go, it established and respected the principle of an enhanced redundancy package. One example is what has happened regarding the terrible job losses in Shannon Airport in recent years. That always happened on the basis of an enhanced package.
To be clear, if the Minister of State cannot give a commitment that the State will abide by the principle that has been used by the State on numerous occasions, as well as across the private sector, then that leads me to believe the Department does not want to give these people an enhanced redundancy package. That is how it sounds. I am not asking the Minister of State to negotiate anything. Rather, I am asking him to commit to the same principle the State has used on many occasions in terms of an enhanced redundancy package based on weeks per year of service. There is nothing new here. It is a well-established principle. The problem is that if the Minister of State cannot give that commitment to the people affected, regardless of whether he likes it, the message the Department is giving is that people can sing for an enhanced redundancy package.
I have dealt with employers who have not given anything above statutory redundancy. They did exactly what the Department is doing right now. That is how it works. I do not want these people to be under any illusion as to what is happening here today. The Minister of State can change that because he is in charge. He can simply say he is not negotiating anything here but he accepts the principle of an enhanced redundancy package based on weeks per year of service. That commits the Minister of State to nothing other than the principle.
The other difficulty I have is that when we combine the reluctance of the Minister of State to subscribe to that very simple principle with the continual refusal of the Department to negotiate with these people, is it any wonder they have no faith in the process? That leads me to my final question. What is the Minister of State going to do to build confidence for the people in the Gallery today? With the greatest of respect, he has not done it so far.
Amendments Nos. 7 to 12, inclusive, and No. 17 are related. Amendments Nos. 8 to 12, inclusive, are physical alternatives to amendment No. 7. Amendments Nos. 7 to 12, inclusive, and No. 17 may be discussed together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 7:
In page 15, to delete lines 6 to 14 and substitute the following:
“ “ ‘native tree area’ means land under trees—
(a) with an area of not less than 0.1 hectare and not greater than 1 hectare, and
(b) where the trees concerned are native tree species only, of which not more than 25 per cent are Scots pine;”.
The Bill proposes a limit on the amount of Scots pine that can be included and a limit of 1 ha for new native tree areas where planted as a plot. Where the planting is done in a 20 m strip, however, there is no upper limit on the area that can be planted under the definition of "native tree area". The Bill does not impose an upper limit on the overall area that can be planted in a 20 m strip. This means major areas could end up being afforested without licence.
Amendment No. 7 seeks to provide for consistency in that no matter how trees are planted, whether in a plot or strip, the overall area cannot exceed 1 ha. It is a real concern that, as drafted, these provisions on the strip could be exploited for commercial purposes as there is nothing in the Bill that prevents that and there is no separation distance specified between the strips. We have heard assurances from the Minister who was here before that planting is not for commercial use, but there is nothing under these provisions to stop the planting of, for example, willow for biomass without the need for a licence.
As I said, we are seeking assurances that planting will not go over 1 ha just because tree planting is in a strip. My reading of the Bill is it could end up incentivising the planting of trees in long strips given that situations where a 20 m strip can be planted are not specified. Significant environmental sensitivities and legal requirements need to be considered in respect of planting by rivers, for example. Planting can damage riparian edges or destroy nesting holes for birds like kingfishers. It can destroy or disturb above ground resting places for otters, which are called couches and are heavily protected under the habitats directive. There are issues around siltation, which can be carried downstream into sensitive areas, including sites that are important for the freshwater pearl mussel, of which Ireland has important populations in a European context. Consequently, we have conservation and obligations due to the fact we have important populations of pearl mussel.
Similarly, allowing for the strip without any restriction on how long it can be will allow for planting along roads and motorways, which can have serious impacts on other species that have utilised the open areas by roads in some places, including birds of prey. Anybody who uses motorways will see birds of prey hunting along them and resting on lighting. Birds of prey have been used to foraging outside of their natural areas.
That is the rationale for the amendment, which was submitted by Senator Higgins. I would like to hear assurances from the Minister of State that the Bill will not incentivise the planting of strips. We want planting to be restricted to a hectare. I want to hear what the Minister of State has to say around how to prevent these issues arising.
I support the amendment. Having a Bill that is about one thing and then including an important area around forestry at the last minute is not a good way to do business. The Environmental Pillar has been in touch with all Senators about this. I do not think anybody is doubting the bona fides of the Minister of State, Deputy Hackett. However, when we are drafting legislation, are we doing so for whatever Minister can come in and for whatever eventuality arises?
The Environmental Pillar has major concerns about unlicensed areas essentially being used for commercial purposes and has stated the Bill does nothing to support native tree planting or prevent foreign seed stock from coming in or both. In the letter it sent to us, the organisation states the right tree in the right place under the right management can benefit climate, but potentially well-meaning policies such as the forestry provisions can have negative consequences. It goes on to state that unless there are sufficient controls in place, which is what the amendment seeks to do, ensuring afforestation happens in the right places on the right scale may be difficult.
I would ask the Minister if State if he would consider taking into account Senator Higgins's amendments. They are very reasonable, for example, keeping an eye on the ministerial secondary legislation that is being delegated by the forestry section in the Bill.
I thank Senators Boylan and Moynihan for the points they raised regarding amendment No. 7 and, by extension, amendment No. 8. The definitions outlined in amendments Nos. 7(a) and (b), and amendments Nos. 8(a) and (b) remove the provision to create narrow strips of native trees. Creating these areas in undisturbed water setbacks can be used to deliver meaningful ecosystem services that protect and enhance water quality and aquatic ecosystems. The creation of these permanent semi-natural landscape features alongside streams, rivers and lakes will protect and enhance water quality and aquatic habitats into the future. It is important that this provision is retained in the Bill.
Amendment No. 8(c), proposes to insert restrictions on harvesting for commercial purposes. However, the removal of some trees through thinning is considered good forest practice as it creates more growing space for the remaining trees. These small areas of native species lend themselves to small-scale harvesting methods. Landowners will need to apply for a tree felling licence before they undertake any tree felling.
These plantings will be permanent in nature and not just for the duration of the scheme. These areas will be afforded the protection under the Forestry Act 2014. Therefore, proposed amendment No. 8(d) is not required.
The planting of trees from a local native seed stock as detailed in amendment No. 8(e) is a worthy suggestion. However, experience with the native woodland scheme has shown that there is simply not enough seed supply to ensure the roll-out of a new scheme. Native tree seeds from different areas can also improve the resilience of forests and allows them to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change.
The composition of tree species to be planted as referred to in amendment No. 8(f) will be fully considered during the strategic environmental assessment, SEA, and appropriate assessment. In general, the planting of multiple species is good practice. The exact requirements will be set out in the scheme design and associated qualifying criteria.
Amendments Nos. 9, 10 and 11 propose to limit of the size of the proposed native tree areas that are less than 20 m by introducing the limit on the overall area that can be planted. Given the potential of these areas to protect and enhance water quality into the future, it is important to be ambitious in this regard. If a restriction is required, it will be identified during the SEA and appropriate assessment.
In relation to amendment No. 12, the maximum percentage of Scots pine to be included stands at 25%. The amount has been limited to ensure forests dominated by conifer species are not created. However, it is also important the amount of Scots pine that can be planted is not overly limited as this would remove the potential benefits afforded by the species. For example, on certain sites, Scots pine will provide shelter, assisting the nearby broadleaf trees to grow and develop. In advance of the implementation of the scheme, the Department will be undertaking a SEA, which the public will be able to participate in. Following the completion of the SEA and subject to its findings, my Department will be in a position to finalise a scheme and the associated qualifying criteria. This may result in the introduction of a level for Scots pine being less than 25%.
As to amendment No. 17 which proposes to add five additions to the areas which can be planted, subsections I, II, III and V have already been addressed in amendment No. 8. The Minister, Deputy McConalogue, did not accept the amendment. Subsection IV is new and will now be considered. The amendment proposes to add text to facilitate the inclusion of conditions with regard to appropriate stocking levels to the species proposed, soil types and characteristics of the location. These proposed conditions will be considered in the context of the scheme design and specifications. For these reasons, I am not accepting amendments Nos. 7 to 12, inclusive, and amendment No. 17.
Amendments Nos. 15 and 15a are related and may be discussed together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 15:
In page 15, between lines 26 and 27, to insert the following:
“(i) shall, on an annual basis, lay a report before Dáil Éireann on the level of afforestation per Local Electoral Area, the level of which is broadleaf, and as to how this aligns with government policy and objectives,”.
The purpose of this is to make data on forestry more readily available to legislators and the public. In the Dáil, the Minister indicated that this data is already available, or rather that it can be extrapolated from the data that is available. My understanding is that is in complex data sets, so the crux of the matter is whether it is freely available. Therefore, this amendment in seeking to ensure the data is published in a more digestible format.
Amendments Nos. 15 and 15a are being addressed together as they both relate to the provision of statistics at local electoral area. My Department provides very comprehensive forestry statistics on a weekly basis through the forestry dashboard. Information is provided on afforestation, eroding and felling. Monthly statistics are also provided on a broader range of statistics that are available on the Department's website. At the end of each year, comprehensive statistical information is provided on county basis in the annual forest sector statistics publication.
The requirement to provide these statistics is not statutorily based, but has evolved over time to meet the requirements of stakeholders in the forest sector. This allows for changes to be readily made to the information being sought. My preferred approach is to retain this current flexible approach to providing statistics.
The request tabled in this amendment was recently the subject of a parliamentary question. My Department confirmed that the level of afforestation per local electoral area and the level of which is broadleaf will be provided by the end of March of this year. For these reasons, I cannot accept amendments Nos. 15 and 15a.
Amendments Nos. 16 and 27 are related and may be discussed together by agreement. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 16:
In page 15, line 30, after “grants,” to insert “subject to Oireachtas approval and”.
The amendment asks that the Minister bring any scheme arising from this legislation before the Dáil for approval. The reason we are doing that is that forestry policy, as has been discussed here at length for the past two years, has failed utterly. There has been a systemic failure to deliver on targets that have been set and to ensure the forestry policy does exactly what it should do, which is to deliver for the environment, communities and the economy. The argument is the amendment will call on the Minister to bring any scheme that arises from the legislation to the Dáil for approval so that it has that democratic oversight which has been lacking in the forestry industry to date.
Amendments Nos. 16 and 27 are being addressed together as they both propose to insert a requirement that any regulation to introduce a scheme will be laid before and agreed by both Houses of the Oireachtas. My Department manages a wide range of schemes that provide support for landowners. These schemes are introduced in a manner which engages with stakeholders across the sector and the wider public.
In advance of the development of this scheme, the Department will be undertaking an SEA, as I said earlier. This includes statutory requirements for the public to be able to participate in the process at specific stages to ensure there is transparency in the decision-making throughout the SEA process. The consultation process will engage with statutory authorities, outside bodies and the public. Members of the Oireachtas are also free to participate in this process to shape any future scheme. However, it is important to stress that in section 9(d) of the Bill there is a requirement on the Minister to provide, by regulation, for a scheme to facilitate the planting of native tree areas. This provides that the legislation to establish a scheme must be consistent with and based on the legislation adopted by the Oireachtas in the primary legislation being considered in this Bill. Therefore, I do not accept amendments Nos. 16 and 27.
I will speak as well to amendment No. 27, as tabled by Senator Higgins, which is similar and provides that the regulations under this section be laid before and be agreed by both Houses of the Oireachtas. Article 15 of the Constitution vests the sole and exclusive power for making legislation in the Oireachtas. With these provisions the Minister is seeking extraordinary discretion in the making of regulations and will have to ensure they are compliant with a significant body of EU environmental legislation and Ireland's obligations under the Aarhus Convention. It is no secret that Ireland's track record on regulations complying with EU law and the Aarhus Convention is not good and is a serious concern. In fact, we were recently called out at a public meeting about our failure to comply with EU legislation when it comes to the environment. The consequences of those failures can be seen in the catastrophic failure to restore and conserve even our most important species and habitats in our Natura 2000 or European sites.
It is both desirable and appropriate that the regulations would be laid before and be agreed by both Houses of the Oireachtas, particularly as those provisions are introduced in this way. As was said earlier, it is tacking on forestry amendments to an animal health and welfare Bill. I had animal health and welfare amendments that were ruled out of order, but here we are talking about forestry under animal health and welfare. The manner in which these provisions were introduced meant that we entirely avoided pre-legislative scrutiny. We have had limited opportunity to hear properly about them from multiple stakeholders. The idea was to rush it through, but given the issues regarding mink farming that has not happened today. However, the provisions the Minister is seeking are an extraordinary discretion. Amendment No. 27 calling for the regulations to have the oversight of the Oireachtas is not a big request, especially given our track record in environmental compliance.
Amendment No. 18 is out of order as it is not relevant to the subject matter of the Bill.
Amendment No. 19 is out of order as it is in conflict with the principle of the Bill.
Amendments Nos. 20 to 24, inclusive, are related. Amendments Nos. 21 to 23, inclusive, are physical alternatives to amendment No. 20 and amendment No. 22 is a physical alternative to amendment No. 21. Is it agreed that amendments Nos. 20 to 24, inclusive, be discussed together? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 23:
In page 16, between lines 9 and 10, to insert the following:
"(i) existing levels of afforestation adjacent to domestic dwellings,".
This amendment is proposing that one of the criteria to be taken into account before the Minister approves a scheme is the existing levels of afforestation adjacent to domestic dwellings. The amendment does not seek to constrain the Government in designing the scheme but simply asks that when people seek to avail of it, due consideration is given to the existing afforestation in the same manner as other criteria which are already included in the Bill, such as public safety and pest control. The rationale for this amendment is that we have seen in certain parts of the country, particularly around Leitrim, communities that have been inundated with forestry plantations. They have walls of conifers and their light and views are blocked. In addition, with forestry plantations many jobs leave the area because the land has been transferred from agriculture to forestry. We do not want to add to the burden of those who have been inundated with forestry plantations. That is the rationale for the amendment. One only has to go to those parts of the country to see our reason for this. The existing levels of afforestation should be taken into account in the criteria.
The Department has long-established procedures in place for taking into consideration the level of forest cover adjacent to domestic dwellings. Set-back distances are most critical when a building is surrounded by forests. In the general afforestation scheme, provisions are made for tree planting adjacent to buildings through the scheme requirements. For example, our existing requirements in our afforestation scheme state that the set-back distance from dwelling houses and associated buildings is 60 m, or 30 m where written consent of the owner is granted prior to approval, and must be observed. At a minimum, the requirements of the afforestation scheme will also be applied to any scheme to support the small-scale planting of native trees. These requirements will be detailed in the terms and conditions of the scheme and it is not necessary to include them in primary legislation. In addition to set-back distances from domestic dwellings, there may be other conditions we will need to include in the terms and conditions of the scheme to protect environmental features. These will be included in any new scheme as it is developed.
I assure Senators that as part of the design of the scheme, my Department will undertake an SEA in which the public will be able to participate to ensure there is transparency in the decision-making process throughout the SEA process. Following the completion of the SEA and subject to its findings, the Department will finalise a design of the scheme and associated qualifying criteria. This may result in the introduction of additional measures with regard to the level of forest cover adjacent to domestic dwellings, including other environmental features. All necessary best practice with regard to planting adjacent to domestic dwellings will be included in the terms and conditions of any new scheme that is designed.
I move amendment No. 25:
In page 16, to delete line 32 and substitute the following:
“(S.I. No. 477 of 2011).
(5) Regulations under subsection (1) shall not apply to planting on peat soils where the climate change implications are unclear.”,”.
This amendment seeks to limit the operation of the unlicensed planting of forestry enabled by these provisions so that it cannot happen on peat soils, where the effects on climate change are complex and often the opposite of what we are trying to achieve in respect of climate change, in the context the Minister establishes with these changes. They should make reference to the best scientific advice we have available to us from the February 2022 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, report on the negative consequences for climate change from poorly considered afforestation and afforestation on peat soils. We have heard of maladaptation when it comes to planting on peat soils.
The amendment seeks to address the issue of afforestation on peat soils where the climate change implications are unclear. The Climate Change Advisory Council advised of its concerns about unintended emissions and warned against planting on peat soils.
While the council said that it was supportive of enhanced afforestation as an offset for emissions in the agricultural land use sector, it highlighted the risks associated with the "poor siting of, mono-species afforestation". The council stated in its carbon budget technical report: "Afforestation needs to be properly planned to ensure it does not result in unintended emissions or negatively impact biodiversity or water quality and should not, for example, be undertaken on peatlands which would turn a present-day carbon sink into a future carbon source." We have heard at length, both at the Joint Committee on Environment and Climate Action and, to a lesser extent, at the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine, that the best thing that we can do with peatlands is to re-wet them, where possible, and convert them back into carbon sinks. The afforestation of peatlands is, therefore, not the best use of that land and of addressing our carbon emissions.
The Environmental Pillar's letter, of 2 March, to Senators on these provisions expressed their extreme concern. They reflected that the Climate Change Advisory Council's view and advice on the dangers of poorly considered and located afforestation stating: "This is supported by a growing body of international research which highlights that the Government's approach of using overly simplistic targets for land-use change such as the number of trees planted or annual afforestation rates, can be misleading, contributing to policy failure, misuse of carbon offsets and even increase greenhouse gas emissions." The simplistic target-based approach is exactly what we are trying to mitigate against with this amendment in order that we get the best outcomes and avoid the worst by limiting the planting of unlicensed forestry on peat soils so they that must go through a stricter licensing regime. Then we can all be sure that the legal assessments necessary are conducted and the public can properly have a say in the environmental decision-making.
I have explained the rationale behind the amendment. It is based on the best science and on the advice given by the Climate Change Advisory Council. It takes on board what the IPCC has said about maladaption and the concerns expressed by the Environmental Pillar. I hope that the Minister of State will consider accepting this amendment.
As the Senator outlined, the amendment seeks to exclude the planting of native trees on peat soils. I recognise that climate change and other legacy issues have been created by the afforestation of peat soils in the past. However, we have examples of woodlands, such as birch, naturally occurring on peat soils. The types of soil to be afforested will be given full consideration during the strategic environmental assessment and appropriate assessment.
The Land Types for Afforestation document sets out the potential eligibility of land for support under the afforestation scheme. Unsuitable land includes a range of sites that are deemed to be unsuitable for afforestation under the scheme due to site factors. At a minimum, the requirements of the Land Types for Afforestation document will be also applied to any scheme to support the small scale planting of native tree areas. For these reasons, I am not accepting the amendment.
I move amendment No. 27:
In page 16, between lines 32 and 33, to insert the following:
“(5) Any regulations made under this section must be laid before and agreed by both Houses of the Oireachtas.”,
Amendment No. 28 is in the name of Senator Higgins has been ruled of order as it is in conflict with the principle of the Bill.
Amendment No. 29a is in the name of Senator Higgins has been ruled of order as it is in conflict with the principle of the Bill.
I move amendment No. 29b:
In page 17, to delete line 22 and substitute the following:
Native Irish pine (Burren pine)
The wording has been amended for Report Stage. The amendment refers to the native Irish pine. For a long time it was believed that pine was not native to Ireland or it had become extinct but was then re-imported from Scotland so hence the name Scots pine. I believe that a small stand of native Irish pine has been found in the Burren and the amendment refers to the use of that type of pine. Senator Alice-Mary Higgins is unhappy with the wording of the amendment and she wants to reintroduce it on Report Stage.
The amendment proposes to insert the native Irish or Burren pine on the list of native tree species. I take it that the Senator is referring to the small population of Scots pine in the Rock Forest in County Clare, which is said to be derived from the original native Scots pine trees. While people refer to these tress as native Irish or Burren pine, these trees are still considered Scots pine and will, therefore, be eligible to be considered for inclusion in any future scheme aimed at planting native tree areas.
I move amendment No. 30:
In page 17, to delete line 28.
My amendment relates to the Taxus baccata or common yew tree. The tree is included in the appendices to the Bill. My only concern is to learn the rationale behind that. We know that the leaves of the Taxus baccata or common yew are poisonous. The official briefing produced by Teagasc states: "The leaves are poisonous to most livestock, and the seeds are also toxic to animals and children." However, we are now proposing to keep the tree on the index.
Simply, Taxus baccata is very expensive to grow, and it is difficult to grow, seed and germinate. I cannot see too many farmers wanting it and I know that many farmers have cut it down. It is pretty logical that we would not include the yew. I acknowledge that we do not have that many indigenous native conifers or evergreens and that presents problems.
I understand what happened with the other three amendments, which were about pines as well. I had tabled amendments but, unfortunately, I was not in the House. I am not going to talk about them now but I will when we discuss the section later.
Finally, I think the yew tree should be excluded. Its inclusion does not make sense particularly when Teagasc tells us and all the experts, with whom the Minister of State will be familiar, know this too. Taxus baccata is on the list proposed in this legislation. Wherever someone looks it up, it will be stated that the leaves of the common yew are poisonous to most livestock and the seeds are also toxic to animals and children, and, therefore, the planting of native trees is going to present difficulties. It is pretty logical that we should exclude the common yew and I am interested in the Minister of State's response.
I thank the Senator for the points that he has raised.
With regard to amendments No. 13 and 30, the list of native tree species detailed in section 2 of the Schedule includes all native tree species and for that reason also includes the yew species. There are a small number of naturally occurring yew forests in Ireland, which are a protected habitat type and, therefore, the inclusion of the yew in any scheme will need to be carefully considered to ensure that the integrity of the existing new forests are not compromised.
While yew can be poisonous, as the Senator outlined, it is a native species and, if appropriately sited, has value to be included in the scheme. Individual yew trees are commonly associated with hazel and holly, and are an important woodland type found mainly on shallow limestone soils. It will not be mandatory for any landowner to plant yew. Further consideration will be given to the inclusion of yew during the completion of the strategic environmental assessments, the findings of which will be incorporated into the scheme and its associated qualifying criteria.
I gather from what the Minister of State has said that inclusion will not be mandatory so can I take it that he does not accept my amendment?
No. For those reasons I am not accepting the amendment.
I do not agree, but I am not going to fight or argue about it. I do not think it makes sense. It is going against all the professional advice. The Minister of State has read us the record and now acknowledges that it is toxic to animals and to children, and we should not be encouraging it. All I am suggesting is that it be excluded from the list. I am not against it. I have a yew hedge surrounding my garden, which is fantastic and a hard thing to grow well. If the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is telling the House that yew is to be encouraged, then I cannot argue with that until the need arises, and we come back and say this was the advice that the Minister of State and his officials gave us.
This gets to the nub of how prescriptive we get in primary legislation. This is about not tying our hands in respect of the strategic environmental assessment and that process. Serious consideration will have to be given to this species. I am familiar with it and I have a tree on my land at home, which is in an old graveyard. That is where the individual specimens tend to be located.
They may have been put in place where people could not afford a headstone back in the day, unfortunately. I know the danger yew trees pose to livestock, but the point here, in the context of the connection with hazel and the holly, is that the Department wishes to keep this option open and not rule it out at this stage.
Serious consideration will be given to this aspect, however, and it will not be mandatory.
On the yew trees, I note with interest that it is a protected habitat type. I was fortunate to work in Reenadinna wood in Killarney National Park, the only native yew wood in the country. To be honest, it has not been very well protected by the State. In fact, as part of the millennium scheme, diggers were brought in across the limestone pavement to put up a fence to keep the deer out, but that undertaking managed to trap the deer inside the woods. Therefore, there has not been very good protection of yew habitats. Regarding native tree species, my point concerns those that should be added to the list as opposed to those that should come off it and that is the context for amendment No. 31.
I move amendment No. 31:
In page 17, between lines 29 and 30, to insert the following:
This amendment seeks to do the opposite to Senator Boyhan's, which was to take off taxus baccata, and to add hawthorn and blackthorn to the list of native species that can be included in the areas. Both these species are good in respect of the benefits for biodiversity, including flowers. These plants flower early and are a good source of food for pollinators, for insects foraging and for those foraging on the berries in the autumn. They also provide excellent cover and shelter for nesting and roosting. The idea is to add these species to the list. If the Minister of State is not going to accept this amendment, I would like to hear why he will not do so. As I said, these two species provide exceptional biodiversity benefits.
I support this proposal. Crataegus is commonly known as the May bush and there are several varieties and subspecies. This addition makes sense. From one perspective, we are talking about not being prescriptive and about rich biodiversity. We do not want to be drilling down and over-micromanaging the whole process, but it makes abundant sense to include these two species and I am somewhat surprised they are not on the list.
On this amendment, which proposes that hawthorn and blackthorn be added to the list of native species specified in Schedule 2, the list of native trees specified there includes all native tree species. Hawthorn and blackthorn are considered shrub species and therefore they have not been considered for inclusion in this scheme, along with other native tree species such as elder and spindle. It is important, however, to note that since the introduction of agri-environmental schemes in 1994 that the establishment of 6605 km of new hedgerows has been supported by the Department, where hawthorn and blackthorn are the dominant species. This work will continue in future agri-environmental schemes. If a landlord wishes to plant these species in association with the trees listed, this can be considered as part of the scheme design. For that reason, I am not accepting this amendment.
I do not know where the Minister of State is getting his advice. I have a crataegus in my garden that is 40 ft high. That is a tree and not a shrub. They are all over the place. The Minister of State will know them from all over his part of the country. These hawthorns are our trees. They are listed in The Hillier Manual of Trees and Shrubs. These are not shrubs. I do not know what anybody who comes in and tells the Minister of State that hawthorns are shrubs is doing or where he or she is coming from. If that is the sort of advice that the Minister of State is getting, then I am now really concerned. These are trees. I studied horticulture. I have planted these species and I have planted them in my garden. I do not understand this description. These species are recommended and they are rich in biodiversity in respect of the berries, the seeds and the flowers. Equally, they are also hard to impregnate and to get into, so they act to protect bird life in them. That is one of the great things about them. Additionally, they will grow anywhere. If anything, I could understand if it had been a case of the Minister coming in and saying we have too many of these species and that they are all over the place. To suggest they are not trees, though, I do not understand. I will be looking for a job in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine tomorrow.
My experience from working in the national park was that hawthorn and blackthorn are trees, but Senator Boyhan has put it better than I could. On the agri-environmental schemes, there are issues in that regard given the situation in Ukraine etc. I do not understand why these two species could not be added to the list, because as I said they are not shrubs but trees. Perhaps the Minister of State will take these comments back to the Department and reconsider this aspect before we go on to Report Stage.
My point concerns the percentage referred to for Scots pine. I am not going to rehash the amendment, but I would be interested in the Minister of State putting on the record his view, or that of the departmental officials, in respect of that percentage not being reduced. I had suggested we reduce it. This is just a commentary now, but I made that suggestion because of what we know about Scots pine. My colleague, Senator Boylan, is correct when she talked about the indigenous pine species found in the Burren. In fairness to the school of botany in Trinity College, it did a great deal of work on this and has written a paper on it. A disease, dothistroma, or needle blight, is now threatening pines. It is caused by a fungal pathogen. This is not me making stuff up. This is according to Teagasc and people in the National Botanic Gardens and in the school of botany in Trinity College. The symptoms appear as red bands on needles that are affected, and this leads to premature needle death.
This is now a common issue for pines, yet we are now going to say that it is permissible for people to plant up to 25% of these trees. I think we need to be cautious. We had experience of Dutch elm disease years ago. I am concerned when such a large percentage of planting is concentrated on one species. I am not against pines of any description, but I am conscious that we now have ash dieback and we are seeing the real devastation that is causing around the country. When there is heavy investment in one species, especially in small plantations, I think we should tread softly. I am not expecting the Minister of State to change anything in this legislation here today, but I would like the Department to be mindful that this fungal pathogen is now presenting us with a serious threat concerning our pine species. We are getting reports about it every day. There are EU passports, etc., that cover health in this area. This is something, however, that we should be concerned about and that is why I urge caution regarding this percentage of pine being planted in these mixed plantings. This is something we can be conscious of and, as the Minister of State said, these are ongoing issues and ones we must be seriously careful about.
Regarding this part and this section of the legislation, many important things are being put on the record today. Many of the issues raised are important and the Minister of State and the Department recognise that and the answers have demonstrated it. Fundamentally, this section is about ensuring that we have a scheme to provide incentives for farmers and other landowners to plant small areas of native woodland. That is the point that we want to get to and it is fair to say we are passionate about this. I have spoken to the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, about this matter many times and her passion for this shines through.
Many of the issues raised are important, such as whether one plants on peaty soil. The Minister of State has outlined where birch has been found to contribute to biodiversity in certain circumstances. Another important issue concerns the presence of otters, as raised by Deputy Boylan. That is why SEA and appropriate assessment of the scheme is the most appropriate thing that could happen.
The Minister of State has given a commitment. Three Ministers have given commitments in this Chamber around full consultation. I hope that means what the Minister of State says it means and that there will be consultation on it. We will ensure that happens. Regulations are an important part of the legislative process and of making sure schemes work on the ground. Not everything can or should be put into primary legislation. However, it is fair that we have an opportunity to put on the record through this process what we want to see in the regulations and that has been done.
I will come back on Report Stage. I thank everybody for their engagement on it, including those engaging from the public. I hope that continues through the consultation process.
I thank Senators for their comments. On Senator Boylan's point, Scots pine is still a recommended species in our afforestation scheme but monitoring of that disease is ongoing. The Senator highlighted the damage the likes of Dutch elm disease have done before. We are acutely aware of the challenges in those areas and are keeping a close eye on them.
Birch on peatlands is a pioneer species but my understanding is that this would allow for the full list of native trees to be planted on peatland. Is that correct? It is not just the likes of birch, which self-seed and are pioneers. It could be any of the listed trees.
Will the Senator say that again?
On the issue around peatlands discussed in relation to amendment No. 25, the Minister of State said birch are found on peatlands and can provide biodiversity, but birch is a pioneer species which self-seeds or is carried in by birds. It is generally scrub. My understanding is that we are exempting the planting of any trees on the native tree species list. Is that correct? That is where our concern is. It is not what would happen in terms of natural rewilding or building up of scrub but the deliberate planting of any trees on that list on peatland.
The Minister of State's assurance was that birch grows on peatland but it is a pioneer species so it generally comes in, self-seeds and forms scrub. We are trying to protect against the deliberate planting of trees listed as native tree species on peatland. It is not restricted to birch.
The response I have here is that full consideration of the types of soil to be afforested will be given during the strategic assessment and the appropriate assessment. It is about the land types for afforestation. Documents set out the potential eligibility of land for support under the scheme. The response refers more to the suitability of the land in terms of individual species. The reference to birch was as an example that naturally occurs on peat. I am not sure beyond that. I will ask for clarification for the Minister on Report Stage.
What are the consequences to marts in relation to licensing under section 8 for the holding of cattle on the day before or after a mart sale? Concerning section 9, when a person applies for planning permission for forestry, would it be possible for everything to be dealt with, including the planning application, the sowing of trees, the road work and the harvesting, in one application? It is cumbersome for somebody who makes a planning application for afforestation to have to go through a lot of licences. This should be done in one pass involving planning permissions, the licence to construct the roads, the licence to fell trees and so forth. That should be streamlined into one pass.
I will bring the point on licensing back to the Minister of State, Senator Hackett. On section 8, it is an amendment to Schedule 3 of the Act of 2013. The Department seeks to licence marts by way of secondary legislation to ensure the health and welfare of animals in marts.
Will it put a further obligation on them in applying for licences? Will it cost more money and so forth?
It is by way of secondary legislation. That will come through. I do not have more details. Maybe it can be revisited on Report Stage.
We are passing something in the dark.
I have what I have in front of me. No amendment was put down in relation to this. I would probably have a more detailed note if there had been amendments put down on it.
Amendment No. 32 has been ruled out of order.
Amendment No. 32a has been ruled out of order.
Amendment No. 32b has been ruled out of order.
Amendment No. 32c has been ruled out of order.
Amendment No. 32d has been ruled out of order.
Amendment No. 32e has been ruled out of order.
The detailed view of the provisions of the Bill has been discussed here and on previous occasions. The legislation will prohibit fur farming and makes provision for a fair and reasonable scheme of compensation that my Department will make available to the three farm businesses affected by the prohibition which currently operate legitimately. The forestry provisions introduce a limited exemption from a licence around small-scale tree planting which takes place as part of a scheme. This can contribute to Ireland's targets in relation to a wide range of climate priorities, particularly climate change, biodiversity and water quality. It will re-engage landowners with afforestation and enhance our ability to achieve the commitments set out in the programme for Government and the climate action plan.
I thank Senators for their engagement, and not just this evening. There was a long and detailed engagement on Committee Stage before I arrived this evening. I assure them that although we might not have agreed on every amendment or every point, I will take the sentiment behind them and the Senators' bona fides in representing those concerns on both major elements of the Bill back to the Department and my ministerial colleagues. I thank the Senators for their detailed and very informed engagement.
When is it proposed to take the next Stage?
Is that agreed? Agreed.
When is it proposed to sit again?
Tomorrow at 10.30 a.m.