I propose to take Questions Nos. 8, 24, 28, 37, 44 and 198 together.
Earlier this year, at the request of the Government, Mr Conor Skehan, Chair of the Peatlands Council, convened a Peatlands Forum, under the chairmanship of Mr. Justice John Quirke, and involving my Department, the IFA, the Turf Cutters and Contractors Association (TCCA), Bord na Móna, and representatives of turf-cutting and environmental groups. This Forum allowed each community affected by the cessation of turf-cutting to put forward their views on the issues and follow-up steps were identified for each bog.
In his report, Justice Quirke recommended that a national plan should be prepared to examine how the 53 raised bog Special Areas of Conservation (SACs) are to be protected. This recommendation was agreed to by Government and Dáil Éireann also gave unanimous support to a Private Members' Motion, which called for such a national plan to be put in place within the terms of the Habitats Directive. On the 3rd of April last, a delegation led by Minister Hogan and I met with EU Environment Commissioner Potoènik in Brussels, where we secured the support of the European Commission for developing a National Raised Bog SAC Management Plan.
The Plan will be wide-ranging, looking at the practical aspects of conserving, restoring and managing the affected bogs and will allow solutions for turf-cutters to be explored in detail. In the context of such a Plan, it may be possible to bring some flexibility, within the terms of the Habitats Directive, that could allow limited cutting within a small number of sites. The Plan will be progressed both at local level for each site and at national level through the Peatlands Council.
With specific regard to Question No. 8, I assume the derogation the Deputy refers to is that which was applied to raised bog SACs. In its infringement action against Ireland, the European Commission contended that the derogation granted by then Minister Síle de Valera was a contravention of EU law. Accordingly, I am advised that an extension to the derogation, or allowing for continued turf-cutting while the Plan is being prepared, is not legally possible.
While the over-whelming majority of turf-cutters on raised bog SACS have complied with the law this year, some unauthorised turf-cutting has been undertaken. Such matters will be addressed through prosecution and cross-reporting processes. The State may also pursue contractors and turf-cutters involved in damage to raised bog SACs, to meet the costs of remediating any environmental damage done.
The Government has put in place a flexible package of compensation for affected turf cutters. Those who choose to cease cutting turf completely can apply for compensation of €1,500 per annum for the next 15 years. Eligible cutters are also entitled to a one-off payment of €500 for this year. This means the total compensation package is worth €23,000, index linked and tax-free.
For those who wish to continue cutting, my Department is working to relocate turf cutters to alternative, undesignated bogs. Turf has now been cut on the first of these relocation bogs and others are being prepared, or are being identified in consultation with affected cutters. Where relocation bogs are not yet available, turf-cutters can choose between a €1,500 payment, or the delivery of 15 tonnes of turf, each year while the relocation bog is being identified, acquired and prepared for cutting. They will also be entitled to the one-off €500 payment. To date, more than 2,250 applications for compensation or relocation have been received by my Department, with payments issued to some 840 applicants to date.
My Department is maintaining ongoing contact with the European Commission in response to the infringement action and will continue to work closely with it in the development of the National Plan.
My Department is also in contact with several turf-cutting groups, seeking long-term resolutions to the issues for their particular bogs. This process will continue as part of the preparation of the National Plan. The Peatlands Council, which comprises turf-cutter, land-owner and environmental stakeholder groups, is continuing with its important work. However, given that the TCCA regrettably withdrew from the Peatlands Council last autumn and has, since March, maintained a position of non-involvement, I would again urge the TCCA to consider whether it could more effectively represent its members' interests through engaging with the Government and other relevant partners.