I welcome the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney, to the House. This is a Seanad Bill which has been amended by the Dáil. In accordance with Standing Order 118, it is deemed to have passed its First, Second and Third Stages in the Seanad and is placed on the Order Paper for Report Stage. On the question, "That the Bill be received for final consideration", the Minister may explain the purpose of the amendments made by the Dáil. This is looked upon as the report of the Dáil amendments to the Seanad. For Senators' convenience, I have arranged for the printing and circulation of the amendments. The Minister will deal separately with the subject matter of each related group of amendments. I have also circulated the proposed groupings in the House. A Senators may contribute once on each grouping. I remind Senators that the only matters that may be discussed are the amendments made by the Dáil.
Animal Health and Welfare Bill 2012: [Seanad Bill amended by the Dáil] Report and Final Stages
I call on the Minister to speak on the subject matter of the amendments in group 1, that is, the subject matter of amendments Nos. 1, 2, 43, 66 to 68, inclusive, and 71.
For the information of Senators, there are 27 groups. I hope we can move through them quite quickly because there is nothing really contentious left in this. There has been over eight hours of debate on this Bill, much of that in this House. Members of this House have made a significant contribution to the content of this Bill. It is a good example of a Bill that began in the Seanad and has been heavily influenced by it. I will outline the changes that have been made on Committee and Report Stages in the Dáil to the Bill the Seanad approved a number of months ago.
Group 1 concerns regulations relating to microchipping. These amendments allow a horizontal regime to incorporate existing provisions for identification in the Control of Dogs Act 1986, the Dog Breeding Establishments Act 2010 and the Welfare of Greyhounds Act 2011. Second, an amendment has already been made to Schedule 3 to provide that the Minister may introduce such regulations without the need for local authorities to request them specifically, as is currently the case.
On amendments Nos. 1 and 2, as we wish to amend the Dog Breeding Establishments Act 2010 and the Welfare of Greyhounds Act 2011, it was necessary to include in the Long Title that amendment to those Acts is being proposed.
Amendment No. 43 provides that where a dog is identified in accordance with animal health and welfare regulations, this will cover the dog as complying with section 16 of the Dog Breeding Establishments Act 2010. The purpose of this provision is to ensure both sets of legislation are consistent and to ensure one measure does not contradict the other, particularly in relation to microchipping.
Amendments Nos. 66 to 68, inclusive, contain a number of amendments to the Welfare of Greyhounds Act 2011. References to various Acts which are being replaced by the Animal Health and Welfare Bill are replaced with references to the Animal Health and Welfare Bill. The purpose is similar to amendment No. 43.
Amendment No. 71 widens the scope whereby the Minister may set down controls, such as identification and microchipping, hitherto limited to acting at the behest of a local authority.
Those are the amendments Nos. 1, 2, 43, 66 to 68, inclusive, and 71. In essence, this group of amendments allow me to introduce regulations that can require that all dogs would be microchipped by 2016, that we would phase that in and that we will be consistent with what is already the law in the Welfare of Greyhounds Act 2011 and the Dog Breeding Establishments Act 2010.
Group 2 consists of amendments Nos. 3 and 23 to 25, inclusive.
Group 2 is a little shorter. This relates to amendments Nos. 3 and 23 to 25, inclusive. It relates to the definition of intensive units.
A small drafting amendment moves the definition of "intensive unit" out of the general definitions to the two specific sections where it is used in this Bill. Essentially, this relates to defining poultry units, pig units, etc. where there is intensive farming.
Group 3 consists of amendments Nos. 4 and 5.
Group 3 consists of drafting amendments to definition of "protected animal". These are amendments 4 and 5. Following legal advice, it was deemed more correct to make clear that the Bill is limited to those animals in the State and those animals that are specifically owned.
There was an issue in relation to Northern Ireland versus the Republic of Ireland here because, essentially, we were referring to animals on the island of Ireland. We had to clarify with the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, DARD, north of the Border that this Bill applies to animals in the Republic of Ireland. That is the clarification on amendments Nos. 4 and 5.
Group 4 consists of amendments Nos. 6, 48, 54 and 60.
Group 4, which is amendments Nos. 6, 48, 54 and 60, relates to the keeping of records. Discussion in my Department has identified the need for some tweaks to the definition of "record" and its use at various points in the Bill. First, we are providing more details to specify that documents like animal passports or identity documents are included in this definition for obvious reasons given the lessons learned during the horsemeat crisis. Second, we are allowing some flexibility that electronic records can be used or that officers can provide evidence on certificate.
This reduces the need for officers to appear in court merely to verify that a document such as an animal movement notification is the official document. In other words, the Government is recognising the collection of data electronically, which makes sense in any modern legislation.
The fifth group comprises amendments Nos. 7, 8 and 10.
These amendments relate to measures to protect animal welfare and which prohibit straying. Amendments Nos. 7 and 8 to section 8 provide for a change in the term describing the actions that must be taken to stop an animal straying from "necessary" to "reasonable". This was an amendment tabled by Fianna Fáil on Committee Stage that I considered to be reasonable and for the addition of the phrase "the risk that the animal will damage the flora and fauna of the surrounding environment". In section 11, I have left in place the word "necessary" as that is really the minimum requirement this Bill requires. Consequently, in respect of straying, the point is that animal owners or those responsible for animals must act within reason to prevent straying but in terms of protecting an animal's welfare, they must act where necessary to protect an animal's welfare. I believe the emphasis is correct with regard to these two paragraphs and again, I believe it was a sensible amendment that came from Deputy Ó Cuív.
The sixth group comprises amendments Nos. 9 and 15.
The sixth group relates to the non-application of provisions to certain enactments and regulations. While this sounds somewhat technical, my Department became aware that late last year, the Minister for Health had introduced a new statutory instrument amending the Irish Medicines Board Act 1995 to reflect recent changes in the law at European Union level that are reflected in the replacement of the Cruelty to Animals Act 1876 by the European Union (Protection of Animals used for Scientific Purposes) Regulations 2012. Therefore, it is necessary to keep the references in the Bill up to date. That is all that is being done. This will reflect this new European Union regulation as regards animals that are used for scientific purposes.
The seventh group comprises amendments Nos. 11 to 14, inclusive.
This group relates to the prohibition on animal cruelty. The amendments are a number of small changes to section 12 that reflect a number of issues raised by Deputies. In the main, they serve to improve the language of the section and provide that where a suffering animal is seized, the dependent offspring also can be seized. This provision is unlikely to be used, as where animals have been mistreated, it usually is that other animals in the herd or flock have been similarly mistreated. Amendment No. 13 allows that where an authorised officer has clear reason to believe a notice will not be complied with, he or she can seize animals. There have been cases in which offenders have ripped up notices or made it clear they have no intention of complying with lawful direction. This provision allows that if such a situation occurs, the authorised officer need not wait for the animals to suffer any further. This should not be read as some form of carte blanche for authorised officers to act as they please. If an officer is challenged in court and cannot show a genuine and compelling reason for his or her actions, then they will not stand. In other words, I am trying to give sufficient power to authorised officers to act on the spot. If they can see that animals are being abused and mistreated and if they are dealing with someone who was being completely unreasonable and unbalanced in terms of not respecting a written direction, one must allow an authorised officer to proceed and actually seize animals. However, such authorised officers must defend that course of action in court if necessary and if challenged.
None of us had envisaged the fodder crisis when this Bill was being drafted but to take on board the Minister's comments on animals being malnourished or not treated properly, are there implications in the Bill before Members regarding farmers who financially are not in a position to feed their animals? If an authorised person, that is, an officer from the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, visits a farm and finds emaciated animals and a farmer or someone else who is unable to pay for the fodder or whatever in a situation similar to what has been experienced in recent months, are there implications in the Bill for such people and for farmers in particular who find themselves in difficult circumstances and who cannot feed animals? I acknowledge the Minister has stated that in the current fodder crisis, this will not happen to any animal, as food will be provided, etc. However, I am trying to foresee other tragedies or crises that may arise which would see the farmer in a position in which the animals become emaciated. Some farmers are concerned that they might be reported to the RSPCA or the ISPCA about the welfare of the animals and so on.
That is a reasonable question and I wish to say two things to farmers on this issue. First, if one is unable to feed one's animals at present for whatever reason, regardless of whether one cannot get them out and has no fodder to feed them inside or cannot afford to buy feed or cannot access feed, there is absolutely no reason to allow an animal to starve in Ireland at present. There is a lo-call number on which one can contact the Department. It will deal with such calls on a case-by-case basis and is doing this at present. The Department is treating them confidentially and consequently, there is no loss of face in this regard. Essentially, the Department sends out a vet to assess the situation and then it accesses and pays for emergency fodder. The Department has now done this in many cases and has spent nearly €130,000 in recent weeks feeding animals in extreme cases. We have had more than 800 calls to that helpline, more than 300 of which have been serious. In the case of the others, we simply have put them in contact with local co-ops and markets to enable them to access feeds. The Department is there to help and not to punish people. This is the first message I wish to send to farmers.
Second, however, in the longer term, I cannot allow a situation in which animals are not being fed. There must be consequences if people allow their animals to starve or to become emaciated or whatever. Consequently, this is the reason this legislation is being put in place. If one is responsible for animals or if one owns animals, a major responsibility comes with that. Yes, the Department is there to help but it is also there to ensure that if one ignores the structures that can help one, of course there are consequences because the Department cannot allow situations in which animals are starving only for farmers then to simply state they were sorry but could not afford to buy fodder.
My point is this legislation allows the Department to take action if there is wilful neglect of animals. Equally, however, to balance that, the Department has put in place an animal welfare call line that is not a temporary measure but is a permanent facility for farmers who have difficulties for whatever reasons in respect of not being able to feed animals. Alternatively, it may not be a question of feeding the animals but the farmers may have a concern about another insoluble issue with regard to the welfare of their animals. There is a balance in this regard. A support system has been put in place that can kick into action, is well-financed and does not have an expenditure ceiling. Second, however, there is a responsibility on animal owners to use that facility or to feed their animals. Both are necessary as otherwise, one contributes to an animal welfare problem, which is not the purpose of this Bill.
The subject matter of the eighth group is amendment No. 16.
Amendment No. 16 stands alone in the eighth group and is about the prohibition on abandonment of animals. This was suggested during the Committee Stage debate and addresses the need to allow for light and ventilation for animals that are being left unattended. This merely adds to the categorisation of what constitutes abandonment. In other words, it is one thing to abandon an animal on a mountainside but I must also cater for abandonment within sheds, garages, backyards or wherever. Therefore, there is an obligation to provide light and ventilation for animals when they are unattended.
The subject matter of the ninth group comprises amendments Nos. 17 to 20, inclusive.
The ninth group concerns an issue about which I personally feel strongly, as I suspect do other colleagues. It pertains to the prohibition on animal fighting. Amendments Nos. 17 to 20 are to section 15. There has been some concern over section 15 of the Bill, despite the fact that it relates clearly to performances. I have had this section re-examined and am satisfied this provision will not be used as a basis for prosecutions against either farmers or educators.
It has been suggested that I should add a clause making it clear that normal farming practice is not covered by the section. Aside from the difficulty with defining normal farming practice, there is the added problem that were I to specify this was not covered, I would be obliged to similarly allow for every other legitimate activity, which might involve animals from riding schools to sporting events to even walking a dog in terms of the actual legal definition. Obviously, this list would never be complete and would therefore be pointless.
However, we made a few amendments on Committee Stage. Amendment No. 17 makes clear that performances with an untrained bovine rather than merely a bull are covered. That addresses a concern that unscrupulous operators could use freshly castrated bullocks to circumvent the ban on such performances. Amendments Nos. 18 and 19 were introduced to clarify the situation for a lawful investigative purpose to justify filming an animal fighting event or to show said material afterwards. That is not particularly well written but, essentially, what it means is that not only is it unlawful to organise, participate in or attend a dog fight, cock fight or other such fight, but it is also unlawful to film it and to put it online to make money from it.
I also proposed a minor amendment No. 20 on the roping of horses. As currently worded, performances involving that activity are banned where they cause suffering. However, there are specialists who carry out the activity in a humane and non-coercive fashion and my amendment proposes to allow such an activity where no unnecessary suffering is caused. I refer in other words to a horse whisperer situation where one is breaking an animal using unconventional but proven methods, for example, the work of Monty Roberts. That type of performance should not be banned by the legislation when there is a proven beneficial effect on animals and is a humane way to break a horse if it is done properly.
We now move to group 10, amendments Nos. 21 and 55.
Group 10 relates to operations and procedures. If Members are not happy with the provision of this level of detail I can shorten my contribution. My concern is to ensure that I do not skim over anything.
Amendments Nos. 21 and 55 relate to sections 16 and 52. There was much discussion about section 16, mainly concerning tail docking and exceptions for so-called working dogs. I have opted for a ban on tail docking for cosmetic purposes. However, there is still some compelling scientific research both available and pending and the balance of evidence seems to indicate that while some working dogs will avoid tail injuries from preventative tail docking, the number is small compared to the number who suffer from side effects associated with preventative tail docking. I suggest that those who think they are protecting the welfare of working dogs by having their tails docked should consider the research carefully.
The amendment to section 52 is to ensure the correct cross-reference to a subsection in section 16 is in place. In other words, what we are saying on tail docking is that the onus will be on the owner to prove there is a requirement to dock the tail of a dog. We are banning tail docking for all cosmetic purposes but we can deal with that through regulation at a later stage in conjunction with the bodies concerned with working dogs. I need to be convinced that tail docking is necessary. There is ongoing research, in particular in a university in Scotland at the moment on the issue of whether working dogs benefit from tail docking. We do not want the situation to arise whereby the tails of working dogs are mutilated and damaged severely by not having them docked. We aim to get the balance right.
Group 11 concerns amendments Nos. 22, 58 and 59.
This is about the protection of animals from poison. Amendment No. 22 replaces the section as was presented in this House. That followed difficulty in overlap between the legislative area of my Department and the National Parks and Wildlife Service. Therefore, the specific issues we discussed concerning wildlife remain within the remit of the wildlife Acts. While a one-stop-shop might have been desirable some issues defy being easily categorised. Therefore, the section does not replace but adds to the existing legislation on poison.
In essence, the section outlines that when one lays poison one must take account of domestic animals and to alert their owners by means of suitable signage where the land is accessible. I have addressed an issue raised by Deputy Tom Barry about poison laid as part of a programme throughout the year. The amendment provides that only a single notice need be lodged with the local authority rather than multiple notices if one is putting out poison, for example, every second day for a week. It is a sensible, pragmatic approach to the issue.
I seek clarification. On the notices that must be clearly visible from every public place, is one notice sufficient on the grounds that notices are often placed in a way that they are not noticeable and therefore one would not see them?
My other query relates to feral cats and their potential poisoning. The issue was raised with me and I wonder whether there is any clarification in regard to the matter.
We had a long discussion about feral cats in the Dáil because they are an issue. Cats are an unusual animal in that they are semi-domesticated in many ways. They become a protected animal if they are owned by a person but, essentially, for the purposes of the Bill they are considered a wild animal if they are not owned. On many farmyards one has cats living in the yard who are essentially protected animals because they are owned by someone but they behave in a pretty wild manner in terms of ratting and such behaviour.
We cannot treat feral cats as protected animals because we are then going down a road whereby we would be unable to control and implement the regulations because there are no owners to prosecute, take to court or to whom we could issue a welfare notice. We must be sensible and we must do a lot of other things to deal with the feral cat population such as catching, neutering and releasing. That is already the case in work done by many animal welfare organisations. We must do more such work and perhaps help to financially support the programme. We are encouraging that through our code of practice, that we are requiring of all the animal welfare bodies that we financially support. However, one cannot apply the same level of protection to a wild animal as a protected animal because it is so difficult to enforce. Whereas there is an onus on landowners in terms of wild animals and protected animals to be mindful of said protection when laying poison, we are somewhat limited in what we can do for wild animals because they are far less predictable.
In terms of the laying of poison, it is necessary that a notice or notices of the laying of poison upon the land shall be so that at least one notice is clearly visible from every public place adjoining or being upon the land. In other words, one has to be able to see the notice regardless of the way one enters the land. The notice must be up on a gate or otherwise visible. It is not necessarily limited to one notice. If there are multiple entrances or access points to land my understanding is that they must all be clearly marked.
We will now discuss group 12, amendments Nos. 26, 27 and 56.
This was a particularly sensitive issue. It relates to the role of authorised officers in the humane destruction of an animal.
Amendments Nos. 26, 27 and 56 are to sections 23 and 52. There was a lot of concern about ensuring a badly injured animal could be put down by a suitably qualified operative, and we now provide for this. We had said only a qualified vet could put an animal down but if, for example, there was a road accident when transporting cattle and there were animals with broken limbs, they would have to be put out of their misery quickly. If an authorised officer is present who is not a vet but is a qualified person from a knackery, for example, we must allow that person to take the appropriate course of action.
Deputy Ó Cuív was also concerned about the provision where an authorised officer intends to put down an animal, he must seek suitable veterinary advice to approve this action. There is an onus on someone who is not a vet to attempt to get veterinary advice before doing that. He must attempt to call a vet because everyone who works in a knackery yard will have the phone number of a vet and should try to call that vet to get some basic advice to approve what they are doing. If, however, they cannot contact the vet but have shown an attempt to contact him, they can proceed and put the animal down, if that is what is necessary. That is important, because otherwise we could find ourselves in an awkward situation in gruesome circumstances where animals are screaming and they cannot be put down while a person waits for a vet to arrive. No one would support that.
The next group is amendments Nos. 28, 39 and 51.
This relates to arrangements for consideration of representations. This series of identical amendments is intended to address concerns raised by limiting the power of the Minister to withhold moneys that are currently due to the Minister from an individual. There are three sections with similar powers so the amendment appears three times. The amendments introduce an additional safeguard by providing for a period of time within which a person may make representations and requiring the Minister to consider them before moving to withhold the moneys. These powers to withhold moneys only apply where the State has had to intervene in cases of probable wrongdoing, such as disposal of non-compliant animals the status of which was unverified and therefore could not enter the food chain, thus giving rise to a cost to the State associated with their disposal. In other words, if the State must intervene and pay for the disposal of an animal and is trying to recoup that cost, I cannot just simply recoup it now. The person from whom I am recouping has the opportunity to make the case and I must consider that case before proceeding. This is a safeguard to ensure the Minister does not over-extend his powers.
Group 14 is made up of amendments Nos. 29 to 32, inclusive.
These relate to codes of practice. These are a group of small drafting changes to the section which provides for codes of practice. These will be a central feature of this Bill in a series of different areas. While there has been some disquiet about codes, it is difficult for me to understand it. It is clear that a code cannot create a new offence, it can only illustrate an existing offence. For example, if I adopt a code saying a fully grown male pig needs five to seven litres of water per day, this merely illustrates how one might comply with the provision in section 13 that an animal keeper must provide sufficient quality of feed and water. The code gives everyone - animal keepers, authorised officers and the courts - a better understanding of what is to be done.
This is not some sort of regulation by the back door, it is a way to improve understanding of precisely what is covered by existing laws. The technology changes regularly so it is neither possible nor desirable to put such detail into primary legislation. This is why codes of practice are a useful tool, particularly in this Bill where we are trying to improve standards. That is a basic explanation of the difference between a code of practice and regulation. One makes new law while the other outlines practice to be consistent with existing laws.
Group 15 covers amendments Nos. 33 to 38, inclusive.
This group relates to animal health levies and affects sections 26 to 29, inclusive. The amendments are designed to provide for maximum flexibility in order that the arrangements for the collection of animal levies can be amended in the future via regulations to reflect best practice in terms of efficiency and public accounting requirements. Accordingly, the requirement for advance payment, whether in cash or possible security, of the levy in respect of animals exported live from the State is being dispensed with in favour of a more flexible and adaptable system to make regulations for the collection and remittance of any animal health levies provided for in Part 5 of the Bill. We have an antiquated system at present of farmers who are bringing cattle for live export having to bring a bag of money to pay those levies at the same time. That is not sensible and these amendments reflect that in the new regulations.
Group 16 covers amendments Nos. 40 to 42, inclusive.
This is a particularly sensitive area for farmers and farming organisations related to valuation and compensation. There were concerns about compensation where animals are destroyed for disease purposes. These were based on a misreading of the current legal situation. The provisions in the Animal Health and Welfare Bill do not make any change to the meaning of the 1966 Act but make the language clearer. The provisions are in line with established case law and the constitutional protection of property. While in the 1966 Act use of the term "shall" at one point is qualified by the term "may" and compensation under the Act is dependent on agreement by the Minister for Finance, currently the ERAD scheme operates without any legal requirement on the Government to pay compensation but the Government pays nevertheless and will continue to pay fair compensation.
When it comes to eradication of widespread endemic diseases, this approach is an important policy plank to ensure compliance with the scheme. I made the point clearly that there is no reason for any move away from the current approach. The issue is that we will not move away from the current approach, be it towards TB or other diseases we want to eradicate. I must, however, have the flexibility where if a person is blatantly abusing the system, he will not automatically be entitled to compensation. If someone steals animals and infects them with TB, then surrenders them as animals that have tested positive for TB, or if someone infects his own herd with TB to draw down compensation, we must be able to refuse payment. This is the flexibility that already exists and must be covered in the legislation. We are not changing anything, and I reiterate for the benefit of those who were concerned that the commitment to compensate for animals that must be destroyed is being undermined that this is not the case. We had a long discussion on this issue in this House when it was raised by Senator Ó Domhnaill and on Committee Stage in the other House. We have clarified the issue and I am clarifying it again today.
We will resume proceedings on group 17, which relates to the appointment of authorised officers.
Amendment No. 44 clarifies that the Minister need not personally authorise every officer and may delegate this power. This is a practical change which has been made at the suggestion of Deputy Ó Cuív in recalling his experience as a Minister, of which I am sure he has fond recollections. It is sensible to provide that Ministers should not be required to sign off on all such matters. If an authorised officer must be appointed in an emergency, for example, and the Minister is not in the country, other people must be available to proceed with the authorisation. Such persons must have been delegated the power of authorisation by the Minister.
The subject matter of group 18 is the remit of local authorities in the enforcement of the Act.
Amendments Nos. 45 and 46 deal with local authority officers. Amendment No. 45 is intended to clarify the language around the appointment of an authorised officer to make clear that officers appointed by a local authority may only act within the jurisdiction of their local authority or that of another local authority where arrangements to do so have been made. These are uncontroversial amendments.
The subject matter of group 19 is distinctions between authorised officers.
Amendment No. 47 makes clear that an authorised officer appointed by a body with which the Minister has a service agreement may not act in relation to farm animals on a farm. Senators may recall our previous discussion of the legislation when concerns were expressed that I would delegate officers from animal welfare organisations who may not have an understanding of farming to audit farmers. This was a genuine concern, albeit one that was not well-founded.
Notwithstanding that, the amendment has been introduced to ensure there is no ambiguity about the matter. If I enter into service agreements with the Dogs Trust, the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals or the Dublin Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the authorised officers from such organisations shall not participate in agricultural or farm inspections and their role will be confined to animal welfare and cruelty cases. In any case, the latter is the only area in which the organisations in question wish to be involved. The amendment provides the clarification Senators sought on this matter.
Group 20 consists of drafting amendments relating to criminal justice legislation.
These amendments address a technical issue. Amendment No. 49 to section 39 clarifies the powers of a garda to arrest a person. It is based on legal advice received from the Department of Justice and Equality and the Office of the Parliamentary Counsel and ensures the section is in line with the Criminal Justice Act 2006. Amendments Nos. 52 and 57 provide for minor drafting changes to ensure correct legal terminology is used in respect of arrest and prosecution. None of the amendments changes the substance of the Bill.
Group 21 relates to the animal health and welfare notice.
Amendments Nos. 50 and 72 are technical in nature and relate to section 42, which deals with the animal health and welfare notice. Amendment No. 50 corrects a typographical error by replacing the word "as" with the word "or", while amendment No. 72 corrects a cross-reference arising from an earlier amendment.
The subject matter of group 22 is the fixed payment notice.
Amendment No. 53 has been introduced to address the issue of fixed penalty notices or on-the-spot fines, as they have been described by some. The amendment is intended to make clear that the authorisation to issue the fixed penalty notice is separate from the general authorised officer provisions of the legislation. The Bill provides adequate checks and balances and I am satisfied it will not be possible for what could be described as a "trigger happy" officer to issue spurious on-the-spot fines.
I will elaborate a little on this matter as it gave rise to concerns in the earlier debate in the House. We have amended the section to provide that a fixed penalty notice cannot be issued by one officer acting alone. Instead, an officer who wishes to issue a fixed penalty notice must first obtain the authorisation of a second officer in a divisional veterinary office or local authority. As such, it will not be possible for fixed penalty notices to be issued in a trigger happy manner. The approval of a second officer must be sought before an officer may issue fixed penalty notices, which are essentially a slap on the wrist for individuals who have been responsible for minor offences. No one wants to take people to court for such offences, unless absolutely necessary. It is important, therefore, that officers have available to them a penalty that equates to an on-the-spot fine. The amendment introduces a check on the initial proposal by providing that a second authorised officer must sanction a fixed penalty notice.
I appreciate the Minister's response and clarification because this is an issue which has caused concern. We discussed it in this House previously and I know the IFA has been raising the issue of the fixed penalty notice too. The Minister captured it well with his reference to trigger-happy agricultural officers or inspectors. I am sure there are none out there but-----
I hope not.
I certainly hope not too. What is being proposed probably makes sense in that no one officer can make the decision. It has to go up the line for a second opinion. Am I right in understanding the amendment to mean that a second officer would have to agree with the initial report or recommendation from the primary officer? If that it is correct, it would at least give some level of comfort.
I am also concerned about the level of fines being imposed. This Bill is very similar to road traffic legislation whereby an administrative penalty of up to €1,000 can be imposed. Constitutionally, that is the position. I have worked in conjunction with Senator O'Donovan on other legislation, which I hope the Minister will see fit to support when it comes before the House, on the decriminalisation of fisheries offences, for which we are proposing administrative sanctions. I would not be averse to supporting administrative sanctions in this instance. They constitute a slap across the wrist and mean that the individual farmer or herd owner will not end up in court, facing prosecution and a criminal conviction. It makes sense but I understand the level of the fines will be fixed by way of regulation. In that context, it would make sense that the cap would be placed at a level that is not excessive. Perhaps there should be a lower cap for a first offence with a gradual increase for any subsequent offences. The purpose of administrative sanctions or penalties is to discourage certain practices. The idea is to disincentivise the practice that is occurring, and if that is the rationale behind this, I will support it. I am glad to see the imposition of sanctions will not be at the whim of one inspector or officer. Any such decision will have to go up the line, which I welcome.
That is exactly what is happening. On the amount, it will be €250 or a higher amount, if deemed appropriate, but it cannot be higher than €1,000. In the vast majority of cases, the fine will be €250. This is a warning, essentially. The notice will also indicate what needs to be done to solve the problem, which is what is required. It is a warning, an instruction and a relatively small fine, and hopefully everyone will be able to move on and learn a lesson from it. That is the idea. It was necessary to reassure people that it would not happen on a whim. I believe we have got the balance right now.
Next are regulations relating to the census of animals, the subject matter of amendment No. 61.
Amendment No. 61 deals with regulations relating to the census of animals. As previously drafted, if a person does not comply with an animal census, he or she is guilty of a lower, class B offence. The amendment makes it clear that persons have a period of 14 days within which to make the return before an offence can come into existence. This eliminates the possibility that persons can be deemed to be in default as soon as the census goes out.
If there is a census, that is, if the Department is collecting data on animal populations, it will give people a period of 14 days to return the census form. This gives people a sufficient period of time to provide the required information before the results are correlated. That is my understanding of this amendment.
The next amendment, No. 62, deals with the fixing of fees.
Amendment No. 62 amends section 73. There was concern that, while I indicated that there would not be new fees or charges imposed on farmers arising from the Animal Health and Welfare Bill, some future Minister might use the Bill as a vehicle to impose charges on farmers. Therefore, there is now a safeguard in place that states that such a charge cannot be bigger than the cost of the service to which it relates. This seems like a reasonable approach. It should be stressed that the reality is that the majority of services provided by the State to the agricultural sector, such as inspection of animals or laboratory tests, are provided free of charge or for charges which are far lower than the actual cost of such services. Essentially, the Bill provides that the Department must provide services at cost and cannot charge for profit. No future Minister can impose a charge which includes a profit. Any service the Department provides, such as inspections, for which there is a charge, the charge cannot be higher than the cost of delivering the service, which is sensible. There is no intention to increase charges from my perspective. If charges are to be introduced or increased, that will have to be discussed and negotiated with the relevant stakeholders. We are not in the business of adding to people's costs at the moment.
The next group of amendments, Nos. 63 to 65, inclusive, relate to service agreements.
Amendments Nos. 63 to 65, inclusive, amend section 74 of the Bill. They are minor technical amendments designed to clarify that organisations with which the Minister enters into a service agreement are not permitted to make regulations but may operate or enforce regulations made by the Minister.
The next group, comprising amendments Nos. 69 and 70, deals with diseases to which the Bill applies.
Amendments Nos. 69 and 70 amend Schedule 2. They are drafting amendments to correct the spellings of certain diseases. I assume nobody has any objections to that.
The next group of amendments, Nos. 73 to 82, inclusive, refers to statutory instruments relating to animal health and welfare.
Again, these are technical amendments to update the list of legislation.
I thank this House, in particular, for its contribution to this Bill. I hope I have taken on board most of the concerns expressed by Senators. I certainly tried to do that, both here and in the Dáil, and I believe the Bill is better for it. The original draft of this legislation was put in place by the previous Government. It has been amended, changed and modernised, as appropriate, by this Government, but the same people in my Department have been involved in making it happen, namely, Mr. Mark Winkelman, Mr. Dermot Murphy and Mr. John Moloney. They have done an enormous amount of work over a number of years to get this legislation right. The Bill brings our animal health and welfare legislation up to date and clarifies the responsibility animal owners have towards their animals.
The most exciting thing about this Bill will be in the using of it because we have had some appalling cases of animal welfare breaches and of cruelty in Ireland and we need to deal with that. We need to make an example of some people, whether it is in dog fighting, abuse of stray horses or other areas. There are some people who should not have animals and we need to intervene to protect those animals. We will have a lot more power and a lot more legal clarity with the enactment of this legislation, and not before time, in my opinion. I am looking forward to putting the codes of conduct in place and the training programmes that will be required to go with this legislation. I am also looking forward to the conclusion of the other preparatory work needed before we can fully enact and use this legislation.
Certainly when that is done we will be able to enhance Ireland's reputation as a country that takes animal welfare seriously. Most importantly we will be able to protect vulnerable animals which are currently being abused and in some cases mutilated. We will be able to hold people to account and impose appropriate penalties so that we can insist on the kind of respect that I believe should be part of any civilised country in terms of how animals are treated and protected.
I thank Members of all parties for their contributions to this legislation. It has been a good example of how this House, working with the other House and a cross-party system, can contribute in a very constructive way to good legislation.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House today and for the co-operation he has shown. He has been to the House with the Bill on a number of occasions. I acknowledge the funding that has been allocated to the animal welfare agencies. I take the opportunity to thank the Minister and his staff for helping out the farming community on the issue of fodder in the recent difficult weeks.
I welcome the passage of the Bill and commend the Minister on making significant progress in the area. I also recognise the work done by the officials in ensuring all-island North-South co-operation and bringing policies much closer together. The Minister's approach to the Bill has helped considerably and a number of other Ministers might take a leaf from his book. He listened to amendments, took them on board and when he returned it was obvious the amendments were put in place. We note that a number of them have been taken on board and it makes for better legislation at the end of the day and much of that comes down to the Minister's approach in the area.
On the Order of Business I raised the fodder crisis and I ask the Leas-Chathaoirleach for some leniency because the Leader advised me to raise the issue while the Minister was in the House today. Where do we stand on the fodder crisis? Last week we raised a particular issue of fodder coming in from France which was being stalled at the ports because of industrial disputes.
Perhaps the Minister might give a very brief response later as we so not want to go into another issue.
I join others in thanking the Minister for his patience and, as Senator Ó Clochartaigh has said, his capacity to listen and with his officials take on board the suggestions. It has been a very collaborative exercise and the Bill is strengthened as a result. The Minister has shown his own personal passion which shines through and has made an enormous difference in passing the Bill in a timely fashion. I just hope my hens will not look for a choice in their meals in future and that they will feel they are well catered for already.
As a matter of coincidence an official called to our house today checking on dog licences. It is good to know that is happening. Some people may believe that dog licences are a dream but I believe it is good to have them enforced. Fortunately my dog licences are intact. Much has been discussed here and the extent of the legislation has probably been a revelation for people. The Minister has said he looks forward to it being enforced and we all welcome that.
I echo the other Senators' sentiments and thank the Minister. This is what parliamentary democracy should be about - a Minister coming in with a piece of legislation and not rubbishing proposed amendments. While some of the amendments we initially proposed may not have been 100% correct, the Minister acknowledged our intent, went back, made amendments in the Dáil and the officials worked overtime on it. This is substantial legislation as it crosses over a multitude of legislation in the Department. It deals with every animal in the country, each of which has a right to be protected and the Bill does that.
Obviously farmers had genuine concerns. We needed to marry those genuine concerns with the greater good of protecting animals. That has been achieved in the best possible manner. I thank the Minister for his co-operation. I agree with Senator Ó Clochartaigh. In the past there were Fianna Fáil Ministers who would not even accept amendments from ourselves when we were on the other side of the House. Every Minister should learn to accept amendments or provide an explanation as to why it is not possible to do so. The Minister has certainly done well in that regard.
The fodder crisis has been referred to and I do not want to get into it too much today. There is a need for additional fodder particularly in the west of Ireland down as far as Galway and Clare, and in the north west in parts of my county where there is difficulty in getting fodder in quickly enough. There are issues relating to the boats and the capacity to bring it in. There is a need for an extension for the scheme and for additional transportation capacity to bring in fodder that has been sourced, particularly in places such as France. I am sure the Minister and his officials are doing everything they can to deal with the issue. Additional resources will undoubtedly be needed because growth levels are inadequate and a lot of livestock are indoors at the moment and cannot get out.
I commend the Minister on the passing of the legislation to which everyone in this House and the other House had an opportunity to contribute. That is a reflection on his co-operation.
May I respond?
It would be interesting to get a progress report and I will not impede the Minister.
I am happy to outline the status of the fodder issues at the moment, which are serious and have been for some time. The fodder crisis began this time last year because we really had no summer from June onwards. Parts of west and north County Cork, and County Kerry had only three days without rain from the start of June to the end of August. It was an extraordinary weather pattern that then continued to be hampered by the early onset of winter and the late arrival of spring. The result has been a significant shortage of fodder in parts of the country.
Even though we have been working with farmers through Teagasc, private advisers and others to try to extend the use of limited fodder for many dairy and beef herds for longer than would normally be used through winter, everybody had anticipated that we would have some kind of normal weather patterns after St. Patrick's Day, but that simply did not happen. We then moved into a crisis management situation where farms literally ran out of all fodder. While some accessed it from their neighbours for a period, eventually that ran out also. It quickly became clear that we would need to import very large volumes from abroad, which had never happened previously.
On 24 April I announced that we would essentially pay for the majority of the cost of transporting from the UK. I committed €1 million representing 1,000 truckloads. We have subsequently extended the scheme's deadline and have doubled the fund. The scheme ends on Friday but we have said we will extend it until Friday week on the basis of deliveries. However, we need clear indications from co-operatives, marts and others that are approved to import and avail of the transport subsidy - the Department has now approved many of them - of proof of purchase before Friday, but the delivery can take place into next week. The reason for that is as follows. We could take the option of simply extending each week resulting essentially in a drip feed of hay coming in each week as long as it is needed.
Instead we need to put pressure on organisations, co-operatives, marts and those importing to bring in a lot of fodder in a short time. In sticking to this Friday's deadline and extending the delivery period until end May, we are doing so. People understand the reason we are making that choice. As we move into June, we need to concentrate on the provision of our own fodder, if possible. If weather does not permit this, we will have to review the situation.
As of yesterday, some 2,158 loads of fodder have been contracted by dairy co-operatives, co-operatives and marts, 419 of which have yet to be delivered. To put this into context, this equates to more than 40,000 tonnes of fodder, which is enough fodder to feed between 5 million and 6 million animals for a day. This has been a mammoth task logistically over the past four weeks or so, which has resulted in huge volumes of, primarily, hay but also maize in the case of Glanbia, imported into Ireland. However, there are areas that continue to suffer and are unable to access as much fodder as they would like. In counties such as Leitrim, Roscommon and in parts of Mayo there are queues for the small numbers of bales available. We are in contact on a daily, and often hourly, basis with co-operatives such as Connacht Gold and others to try to get hay to where it is needed and with other co-operatives such as Dairygold, Glanbia and so on to try to compensate where there are real shortages. This work is ongoing. A lot of hay will continue to come into the country between now and the end of the week and into next week. I understand Dairygold will bring a shipload of fodder into Ireland. However, this has not been confirmed.
This is about not only feeding the crisis but allowing farmers, as an insurance mechanism lest this summer is the same as last summer, to get fodder into storage. We must plan for such a nightmare situation. We will continue to keep the pressure on in terms in bringing in large volumes of fodder and assisting where we can. For example, the head of the Irish Road Hauliers Association has been very helpful. Connacht Gold had a problem sourcing trucks and the Irish Road Hauliers Association has linked up with it to bring in large volumes of fodder, particularly to the west and north west of Ireland, including Donegal, which was hit badly last Saturday by very heavy rain. While in comparison to other parts of the country Donegal did not experience particularly high rainfall last summer, it is experiencing it now.
In terms of the emergency welfare line, I have consistently said that there is no reason any animal should starve, regardless of the availability of fodder. If a farmer is in crisis and is unable to afford to feed his or her animals or cannot access hay or silage he or she should contact my Department and we will help. The Department has responded to approximately 800 calls during the past month. It has helped in approximately 300 emergency situations and has put others in contact with co-operatives from whom they can obtain feed. More than €130,000 has been spent on getting hay into farmyards to ensure animals get the feed they need. We will continue to do this. This scheme will not close any time over the summer or next winter for that matter. The animal welfare helpline will remain open and the Department will remain supportive and discreet in terms of how it assists farmers so that there is no loss of face. This is about feeding and supporting animals. I would encourage farmers to avail of what is in place.
On mortality, there has been much talk about numbers reaching epidemic proportions and so on. It is important to put this into perspective. We do have a high mortality rate this year as compared with last year. Thus far, approximately 152,000 animals have died on farms this year as compared with 116,000 this time last year. It is important to put this into perspective. It amounts to a little more than one animal per farm. It is also important to note that we have a 3.5% increase in calving rates this year. There will always be some mortality during calving. The real problem is not that there are animals starving in fields - if there are we need to know about them and deal with it - but that animals are being housed at a time when they would normally be out, which has contributed to the spread of disease and other disease threats to which animals would not normally be exposed this time of year because they would be out in the fields in the fresh air. A series of things have led to the increase in mortality. It is important to put this into perspective so that people understand the reasoning behind it.
On farm payments, we are ahead in terms of access to payments around REPS 4. Some €167 million has been paid out thus far under that scheme, €35 million of which was paid out in 2013. Agri-environment option scheme, AEOS, payments are almost all paid. More than €3 million has been paid out during the past two weeks to farmers. We want to get as much cash out to farmers as we can, given their financial concerns. Discussions are ongoing with the banks and co-operatives in regard to making credit available. We are seeking interest-free credit for fertiliser purchases from the co-operatives in an effort to ensure grass growth as the land begins to dry out. Again, practically all of the co-operatives have responded positively to this request.
In terms of accessing an EU solidarity fund, we have pushed for this with the Commission. However, it is not a runner. While I do not have time now to go into the reasons for this they have been set out in detail today in the journal, which members can read tomorrow. If we could access this funding, we would do so. The fund is used specifically in relation to natural disasters and to compensate states in respect of the clean-up following natural disasters rather than to provide funding to individual farmers or private businesses. The fund is not, unfortunately, designed for what we are experiencing.
The real challenge for us now, apart from getting fodder to the parts of the country where it is needed, is to ensure that this does not happen again next winter. That is very challenging. We need to find a way of getting enough fodder into storage to ensure we do not have a repeat of this crisis, which would be very expensive for us to deal with next winter and spring. I am pleased to inform the House that the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, and I today announced a temporary and targeted adjustment to two provisions of the nitrates regulations to support additional fodder production on Irish farms in the coming months. Essentially, we are extending by two weeks the periods during which farmers may spread fertiliser, thus extending the grazing season and, hopefully, getting a late cut of silage that normally would not be even considered by farmers because they would already have sufficient fodder in storage at this time. We are also addressing the phosphorous issue. As herds have been fed a great deal more meal than normal, this will have consequences in terms of the nitrates action plan and directive. We are also seeking some flexibility in this area.
We are dealing as best we can with the immediate crisis in terms of having established a low-call emergency helpline for farmers and continuing to subsidise the importation of large volumes of fodder. We are bringing a great deal of pressure to bear on bringing in as much fodder as is feasible and practicable. We are also doing a great deal of work with Teagasc to plan for the medium to long term issues around fodder. I cannot recall it ever being the case that farmers across the country have had no fodder in storage, with some few exceptions, while at the same time the grazing season in wet areas was four to six weeks behind and in better areas was two or three weeks behind in terms of normal growth patterns. We are under real pressure. The system is being tested. In my view, we have the capacity to respond to this positively and to ensure that we get enough fodder into storage for next winter. I am confident that we can do this, but it will not happen by itself.
Question put and agreed to.