Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Questions (27)

Martin Kenny

Question:

27. Deputy Martin Kenny asked the Minister for Rural and Community Development the status of the national indemnity scheme that he announced to indemnify private landowners in areas not covered by the approved trails in respect of the use of their lands for recreational purposes; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22753/19]

View answer

Oral answers (14 contributions) (Question to Rural)

The Minister is aware that many walkways around the country are under pressure due to difficulties with landowners and so on. The Minister announced earlier this year that he would put an indemnity scheme in place for the owners of land beside walkways so that, if someone wandered onto their land, it would not be an issue if that person got hurt and took a case. We have heard much about cases in the past week or so. A great deal of the conflict could be resolved if there was a proper indemnity scheme. I would like clarity in that regard. When will the scheme be in place, who will have cover, how will it work, and will it be for marked ways only or will other walkways be covered? How do we ensure that the tourism potential can be unlocked by having this in place early?

The Deputy has posed his question.

This is the end of May, when such a scheme should already be in place.

Sport Ireland Trails, formally the National Trails Office, holds an insurance policy covering approved national way-marked ways and looped walks to protect landowners against claims for loss or damage from recreational users of those trails. The insurance policy covers trails that meet a specified standard and includes all trails currently included in my Department's walks scheme.

As the Deputy will be aware, my officials have been working to develop a national scheme to protect private landowners in upland areas from possible claims from recreational users while on their lands. My Department has been advised that the introduction of any such indemnity scheme would require legislation. My officials met the Attorney General's office recently to explore the various options open to the Department and to identify the precise legislation that would be required to implement an indemnity scheme. This is a complex issue, as it is not possible to define trails on hills and mountains in the same manner as the way-marked trails and many of the lands are commonages.

The legal rights of landowners must also be respected by any scheme while at the same time trying to maintain access to these lands for recreational users on a permissive basis. My officials will continue to work to resolve this matter. In the meantime, I will shortly announce the details of a new mandate for Comhairle na Tuaithe, the Countryside Council, to help strengthen the development of the outdoor recreation sector generally and to realise the potential of outdoor activities for the benefit of rural communities.

The Minister is saying that this must wait for legislation to be in place. That is a problem, though, as we all know how long it takes to get legislation through the Houses even when it is clear cut and easy. The Minister gave people a great deal of hope a few months ago when he stated that he would put a scheme in place. That was ill-thought out, given that there was no evidence that the proposal could be introduced quickly. People I have spoken to around the country, in particular people in the tourism business, tell me they are hoping to see more tourists visiting. Many tourists who are interested in walkways and in using our mountains are visiting Ireland, but the Minister is now saying that the hope he gave to the many parts of rural Ireland where that potential lies must await legislation, which will take a very long time. This will cause a major difficulty.

Is there an alternative way to do this? Has any alternative been considered? We must put something that works in place quickly. The issue of legislation just blows this out of the water.

The Deputy has asked his question.

I had a list of questions that I was going to ask the Minister about how the scheme would provide coverage and who it would cover, but if he is telling me that legislation will be needed, we are just wasting our time, as it will not happen.

I am keen to introduce some form of protection for landowners. Like me, however, every Deputy across the floor knows that that must be done through legislation. Let us not pretend that a scheme can simply be introduced. If it were that easy-----

Why did the Minister not say that six months ago?

The Deputy will have another opportunity to contribute.

I did not interrupt the Deputy. If it were that simple, it would have been in place for the past 20 years, but it is not that easy or simple. We must introduce legislation. We are holding discussions with the Attorney General. We are also examining other ways of doing this. This is a significant decision. We are trying to protect the landowners and I want to ensure that we get this right. This legislation was included in the list of promised legislation that was published earlier this year. It is my job to ensure that the legislation I introduce is correct. If we can put a scheme in place without legislation, that will be fine. We are considering all alternatives, but I must take the advice of the Attorney General. I do not want incorrect legislation to be introduced and lead to difficulties in the courts, as happened in the past. We are in talks with the Attorney General and the State Claims Agency.

I want to resolve this matter. It is important that no farmer or other landowner ends up before the courts without the protection of the State. If landowners are allowing people to go through their lands, the State must protect them however it can. In whatever legislation or scheme I introduce, I must be careful to protect them. They are the owners of the land and they are No. 1.

I thank the Minister, but he will have a further minute later.

I accept that, Minister, and I am not saying that it is not the intention. The difficulty is that, when the Minister announced the scheme, he did not say that it would need legislation. People believed the scheme would arrive sooner. However, that is as may be. The greater issue in many areas is the question of the controls that are in place in respect of walkers using lands. A man told me a couple of weeks ago that, when people came to walk through his land, someone would just pull up in a car, open the boot, three big Labradors would jump out and away they would go. Some kind of rule need to be in place. Most of this is happening in mountainous areas where there are sheep. The landowners are concerned that dogs are worrying their sheep. The dogs may not attack the sheep, but that they are there barking and howling and running up and down through what is essentially open countryside is causing a major problem. A tighter regime needs to be put in place to ensure that landowners feel protected. Ultimately, they are concerned about their livelihoods. Farmers also use commonages to graze sheep so that they can make a livelihood. If landowners are put under threat, the Minister will encounter major difficulties in trying to open up such areas.

The Countryside Council has representatives of landowners and a number of organisations, including farming organisations. It will meet again next week. I expect that it will assist me on the question of legislation in whatever way is necessary. My first priority is the landowners. They must be protected.

The Deputy was right to raise the example of people letting out their Labradors or other dogs, but there is separate legislation to deal with that situation. Such people should have respect for those who are allowing them to go through their lands. My priority is to look after the landowners. They are the people who own the land and have the rights. They are the ones whom I want to protect.

I want to open the walkways.

I want to open the trails. That is why my Department and I have put substantial money into the outdoor recreation scheme. These schemes are working well. They are good for the communities and tourism and for the well-being of people. They cost nothing. That is why this year we have doubled the funding for the walks scheme from €2 million to €4 million. I want to ensure that we reward the people who deserve to be rewarded.