Wednesday, 20 May 1987
Dáil Eireann Debate
Both my amendments are to section I and to a degree they are interconnected. The first amendment is more of a technical nature whereas the second one focuses on my main concern in relation to the Bill. That concern is for those who are unable to pay for services.
Mr. J. O'Keeffe: In relation to the substance of the matter my main concern is that services should be available, and that we should so provide, for those who are unable to pay. If we establish the principle that fees will be chargeable for the advisory services it will be improper to let this Bill go through the House without having full assurances that those who are unable to pay will still be able to have access to those services. I am thinking in particular of the small farmers and those in serious financial difficulty. It seems that those are the two categories which, more than anybody else need the services of the ACOT advisers. It would be very detrimental to the future of agriculture if people did not have access to those services because they are unable to pay.
When this Bill was introduced by the last Government a commitment was given that there would be no question of the general body of farmers being charged for agricultural advice. It was  made clear by that Government that any scale of charges proposed by ACOT would not be approved unless the requirement in relation to those unable to pay was catered for. When the Bill was reintroduced by the present Government that commitment was not included in the opening statement of the Minister and that is basically the reason I put down these amendments.
From the techncial point of view — I am now focusing on amendment No. 1 — I notice that the Bill provides that ACOT may charge, vary, receive and recover fees for advisory services and that the Minister can vary any such scale of fees or the conditions relating to the charging or variation of any such proposed fees. It strikes me that if ACOT are to be given power to charge, vary, receive and recover fees they should also be empowered specifically in the Bill to lay down terms and conditions relating to the charging or variation of any such proposed fees. This is purely a technical point I am raising in the interest of ensuring that the Bill is in proper form. This is not a substantive point and the Minister may have a reply that will satisfy my technical concerns.
On the substantive point, the proposal I am making is that the Minister who, under the terms of the Bill as it stands, may vary the amount of any such proposed fees or variations or any such proposed terms and conditions, will not do so unless he is satisfied that such terms and conditions make adequate provision for those who are unable to pay. I want a specific provision included in the Bill to cover those who are unable to pay. I also want a provision that if ACOT in their scheme of fees do not provide for those who are unable to pay it will be incumbent on the Minister to specifically reject such a scheme of fees unless and until such provision is made for those who are unable to pay. That is the focus of my argument. I asked the Minister on Second Stage to give the kind of assurances I am seeking in relation to those who are unable to pay but I was not fully satisfied  that the point was covered in the Minister's reply and on that basis I felt it necessary to put down an amendment.
Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture and Food (Mr. J. Walsh): First, let me take the point of various Deputies' contributions, in particular Deputy O'Keeffe's, in regard to their anxiety in the matter of payment for advisory services provided by ACOT. Deputy O'Keeffe expressed the view that certain categories of farmers such as those on low incomes, in particular those with underdeveloped holdings and those in disadvantaged areas and also those in financial difficulties, should be exempted from any charges. I have, as promised, considered these matters in the meantime. The Bill does not in any way rule out such exemptions. It is purely an enabling Bill which leaves the nature and details of any proposed charges to be drawn up by ACOT and submitted for ministerial approval. It is precisely the same Bill as that introduced by the previous Government to meet a situation where not all farmers would be charged. There is therefore no necessity for any amendment to provide specifically for exemptions to be allowed in particular cases.
Administrative arrangements could of course be made to provide for the situation which Deputy O'Keeffe desires. However, the operation of a means test or other mechanism to identify those who are deemed unable to afford the payment of charges would obviously create exceptional administrative difficulty and lead to endless appeals. This would clearly be counter productive to ACOT's main objective of assisting farm development.
As I stated at the conclusion of Second Stage, it should be quite possible for ACOT to devise a scheme which would provide various options for obtaining advisory services and which would take account of the various categories of farmers and the particular needs of each category. I have no doubt that in this way provision can be made to cater for those farmers with low incomes and those in severe financial difficulty.
 ACOT's work brings them into close and trusted relationships with farmers at all income levels. The service, with its special expertise, should, in consultation with the Department of Agriculture and Food, be in a position to formulate a scheme or a system which would take due account of the needs of such farmers. I am opposed to laying down advanced prescriptions which would pre-empt ACOT's freedom to devise proposals which they consider are most appropriate. I can, however, give the House an assurance that when the question of approval of ACOT's proposals arises, due account will be taken of the position of low income farmers and farmers in financial difficulty, with the object of enabling them to continue to have access to the advisory services of ACOT. The general thrust of this Bill, now as when it was originally introduced, is to raise income from those farmers who are able to pay and from those who are benefiting most from the services provided. I made the point on Second Stage that a substantial number of farmers are earning very large sums of money and benefiting to a considerable extent from ACOT. It is that category of farmer on which the Bill focuses.
This is purely enabling legislation to allow ACOT to earn income from farmers deriving most benefit and from those who are in a position to pay for that service. In times of financial stringency, additional income from farmers who can afford to pay will have the effect of providing a more comprehensive overall service and thereby be of considerable help to farmers in the category about which Deputy O'Keeffe and his colleagues are concerned. The additional income will allow ACOT to focus on programmes of advice, on seminars, leaflets, radio programmes, telephone exchange of information with individual farmers and so on. Without this additional income ACOT would be in a worse position and would be unable to provide the kind of service for the farmers we are particularly concerned about. On 10 April 1986, the then Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture, Deputy Hegarty, when  introducing the Bill said at column 481 of the Official Report:
Nevertheless there is no doubt that there are a number of farms, whether operated by individuals, firms, or other bodies, which are at a high level of development and generating good profits. It is eminently reasonable that those with such farms should be required to contribute an appropriate share to the cost of ACOT's professional services which are of financial benefit to their farm businesses.
While this legislation will enable ACOT to charge for advisory services it also provides that any such charges and the criteria on which they are based will be subject to prior approval of the Minister for Agriculture. Furthermore, should the Minister consider, in the light of changing circumstances, that any fees or charges should be varied or, indeed, terminated, the legislation will enable him to direct ACOT to vary or terminate them.
Some may think that the introduction of charges will be a disincentive to some farmers to seek advice and I am, of course, conscious of this possibility. There will be full consultation between my Department and ACOT prior to the introduction of any charges regarding their level and the criteria to be used in their formulation.
The same situation applies now. It is only right, proper and appropriate that those able to pay and those benefiting most from the service should contribute. Their contribution will be of immense benefit to farmers in the less well off category. I can assure the House that, following consultations with ACOT, when the question of the approval of the scheme of ACOT services comes up, due account will be taken of the position of low income farmers, those who are in severe financial difficulty and those who are on low incomes because of their location.
I believe there is not a real need for the inclusion of this amendment because subsection (3) (b) already provides “... and any terms and conditions ... of any such proposed fees shall be subject to the prior approval of the Minister,”. It is clearly implied that ACOT may accept terms and conditions and there is no need to make expressed provision for it. The simple object of the subsection is to give ACOT power to make charges.
I am opposed to this amendment on the grounds that it is unnecessary, inappropriate, and in practice unworkable. It is unworkable chiefly because it would introduce the concept of persons “unable to pay” into the Act. The determination of those who are unable to pay is a matter of subjective judgment. The amendment would impose on the Minister an obligation to discriminate between different individuals without clearly specifying objective grounds on which such discrimination can be made. The law officers advise me that this could lead to endless claims, and possibly litigation, by persons claiming they come within the description of “unable to pay”. It could be open to objections on constitutional grounds.
It is inappropriate because the setting and periodic revision of charges to take account of the economic situation in farming or among certain categories of farmers can more effectively be done by administrative means for which the Minister can provide in the context of his powers of approval, which are very flexible. I have said they can be terminated in the light of improving financial circumstances.
It is unnecessary because the Minister  has ample powers in the approval of proposed changes to see that suitable provision is made to meet the position of farmers of limited means who should not, in the overall public interest, be excluded from availing of ACOT's advisory service. It is significant that the previous Government, who had indicated their intention that charges would not apply to all farmers, were quite satisfied with the provisions of the present Bill. The provisions in that Bill were deemed to be adequate and not to need any amendment.
Mr. J. O'Keeffe: On the substantial point the Minister is moving closer to my position. I take the point that he does not want to insert this into the Bill but essentially what I have been seeking is a commitment from this Government about how they will deal with those who are unable to pay — small farmers, farmers in the disadvantaged areas, farmers on low incomes and those in financial difficulty.
I accept that this is enabling legislation. As I said, the Minister appears to be moving closer to my position when he says the Bill does not rule out the kind of exemptions I have mentioned. In a negative sense that is going part of the way to meet me. He also said the Minister will take account of the position of those on low incomes and those in severe financial difficulties when the question of approval of the ACOT scheme of charges comes up for consideration.
I ask the Minister to come a little closer on this. If he cannot accept my proposal that there should be a specific provision in the Bill to cater for those on low incomes, in financial difficulties and those who are unable to pay, let us go back to the reason I felt it necessary to put down this amendment. When the Bill was introduced by the previous Government, a specific commitment was given that an ACOT scheme of charges would not be approved unless such scheme of charges was restricted to those who could afford them. We can resolve this problem if I  can wring a commitment from the Minister in similar terms because although the Minister quoted extensively from the speech of former Minister of State, Deputy Hegarty, when he originally introduced the Bill in 1986, he did not touch on that portion of his speech. I am worried the Minister seems to be avoiding this point. Bluntly, if I can secure a commitment, even in political terms, from the Government that a scheme of charges will not be approved unless it restricts charges to an appropriate payment from those who can afford to pay, then I will be satisfied. If the Minister can give me that assurance, I will have achieved my objective.
I know discussions have already taken place as to how one would set objective criteria as to who could afford payments. I understand the adjusted acreage system was suggested which would provide a very definite definition of a small farmer. There was a suggestion that those with less than 40 adjusted acres should be exempt from charges but yet have full access to the services. There was also a discussion as to how one would cater for those in severe financial difficulties and I accept the Minister's point that it would be hard to specify in statutory form the criteria which would designate someone as being in serious financial difficulty. However, the Minister can give a positive and specific political commitment and, knowing him as I do, if I can secure such a commitment I will be satisfied he will ensure it is carried out. The Minister said he did not rule out such exemptions and that due account would be taken of them but I want him to make a positive commitment that any scheme of fees or charges produced by ACOT for approval will not be passed unless such charges are restricted to an appropriate payment from those who can afford them.
I accept that an amendment to the Bill in the form I propose is not the ideal way of securing a commitment but it was the only course open to me as my requests on Second Stage were not fully met in the Minister's reply. In regard to amendment No. 1, the Minister says that because  there is a reference to terms and conditions in subsection (b) the implication is there that ACOT can, in drawing up such a scheme of fees, impose such terms and conditions. Why leave it to implication? If there is a specific enabling power in the Bill to allow ACOT to draw up charges, to vary them and to receive and recover fees, it would be sensible in the legal sense to give them power to impose such terms and conditions as they consider appropriate before presenting a scheme to the Minister for approval. It is purely a technical point and if the Minister and his advisers are satisfied that such power is not necessary I will accept it. I put down the amendment more in the interests of good order than of making a substantive point.
I urge the Minister to deal with the problem in the manner which I outlined as it would allay the fears of the small farmers and those in financial difficulties if they had the assurance about the charges. It would be disastrous if they were unable to have access to the advisory services.
Mr. Durkan: In support of my colleagues' amendment, I should like to inquire if the proposed scheme of charges will be applied on a nationwide basis or if they will be strictly the reserved function of ACOT in a particular county or area. My concern obviously springs from the fact that those most in need of the advisory services, the small farmers or those in financial difficulties, will suffer unless the scheme is applied on a nationwide basis. The fact that some farmers seeking advice from ACOT live in what is commonly regarded as the most affluent areas does not necessarily mean that they themselves are affluent. I should like clarification as to how it is proposed to operate this scheme by way of qualification for hardship clauses and so on.
Mr. Sheehan: Are the charges to be imposed at the discretion of ACOT instead of the Minister? Will ACOT decide the category of farmer who will pay? Will the Minister satisfy the House that the farmer who cannot afford to pay  will not suffer as a result and that he will get equal attention from ACOT advisers as his counterpart who is paying a charge? Does the Minister intend giving carteblanche to ACOT to levy charges at whatever rate they think fit and, if so, what protection will there be for the small farmer and the person who will not be in the position to pay those charges? Will he be put for ever more into a category in which he will not get any further instruction from the agricultural advisers? I would like the Minister to answer those questions because he was critical along these lines when the Bill was first introduced in the Dáil.
Mr. J. Walsh: I appreciate very much the concern of Deputies in relation to the ability of farmers to pay these charges. Deputy O'Keeffe and Deputy Sheehan represent a constituency much of which is inhabited by farmers who are in disadvantaged areas and who obviously could not have this imposed upon them. As public representatives of that area we do our best. Because of the extreme difficulties of the farming community in Deputy Sheehan's part of the constituency Deputy O'Keeffe and myself have occasionally helped him out. We are in a better position than most to appreciate the difficulties of farmers in disadvantaged areas.
The main thrust of this legislation is to allow agriculture to develop in a rational way, to allow ACOT to maintain their level of services and to insist that farmers who are in a position to pay and who can afford to pay will contribute, thereby allowing ACOT to give a more comprehensive service. Some farmers are making substantial profits. Recent surveys undertaken by An Foras Talúntais reveal that several thousand farmers are making in excess of £25,000 per annum.
Mr. J. Walsh: Not in parts of west Cork. Nevertheless there are several thousand farmers nationally making in excess of £25,000 per annum. There is  a very sizeable section of the farming community in the category of £10,000 to £20,000 per annum. I do not think I can do any better than to quote my esteemed colleague Deputy Sheehan. The written word comes home to roost every so often.
The Bill as a whole does not in any way curb agricultural output. The charges are in keeping with charges made on other sections of the community. The wording of the Bill leaves ample room so that the Minister can ensure that charges are not imposed on farmers who are not in a position to pay and I was glad of the assurance given by the Minister in his opening remarks. I accept the fundamental principles of the Bill, provided hard cases are sympathetically considered and aided by the Minister and future Ministers.
Mr. J. Walsh: I accept Deputy Sheehan's concern that that category of farmers should be dealt with sympathetically. Of course, I can give that assurance to Deputy Sheehan and his colleagues. I assure the House that allowance will be made in the scheme of charges for services where payment would cause any undue difficulty for any category of farmer in any part of the country. To allay Deputy Durkan's fears this will not be confined to any geographical location. I accept that in areas designated as disadvantaged there are farmers with considerable incomes, whereas in nondesignated areas there are farmers who are put in the pin of their collar to eke out a living.
Farmers in severe financial difficulties have gone through a pretty hard time  over the past number of years. I give an assurance that a national scheme will be drawn up by ACOT in consultation with the Department of Agriculture and Food subject to the approval of the Minister and that if the charges would impose any difficulty on any sector of the farming community, or if they were contrary to the best interests of agricultural development, they will not apply.
I reiterate that the whole thrust of this Bill is to get some income from a sector of the farming community who can well afford to pay. They are already paying for visits by officers of the Department of Agriculture and Food in relation to grants and they are paying veterinary fees for visitations. Therefore, I see no reason why people who are benefiting from particular services should have the general taxpayers paying entirely for them.
To Deputies who expressed their genuine concern for farmers who would have difficulty in paying for these services, I categorically give an assurance that, when this scheme is being drawn up with ACOT, there will be no question of anybody having to pay where undue difficulty will be created for them. I see no difficulty in the same spirit applying to this legislation as applied when it was introduced and when these sentiments were expressed by the then Minister, Deputy Hegarty. I hope this assurance will be sufficient to allay the genuine concerns expressed by my colleagues in this regard.
Mr. J. O'Keeffe: I am much happier now that I have secured from the Minister the assurances which he has just given. We have almost resolved this problem. I am working on the basis that we have an assurance from the Minister that there will be a provision in the scheme that those for whom difficulty would be created will continue to receive services without having to pay for them. Essentially that is what I am looking for. As I said on Second Stage I have to accept the principle that those who can afford to pay should pay some reasonable and appropriate payment. I am satisfied with this provided the political commitment made  by the Minister is fully implemented and the position of small farmers, those with no incomes and those in serious financial difficulties is fully catered for.
It would be helpful, to finalise the matter, if the Minister could give us a preliminary indication of his thinking on what the charges would be and what terms and conditions would apply to them. Has any thought been given to the specifics or have any discussions taken place with ACOT? I know the Bill provides that ACOT will draw up the scheme of charges and then present it to the Minister for approval. I presume in practical terms this probably means that there have been discussions between ACOT and the Department. It would be helpful at this stage if the Minister could give an indication of how things are going: what level of charges is under discussion, what terms and conditions would apply and, in particular, what level of exemption has the Minister now in mind? How does he now propose to implement the political commitment he has given in relation to the allowance which is to be made for those who are unable to pay?
Mr. J. Walsh: Preliminary discussions have taken place between the Department of Agriculture and Food and ACOT. As the responsible agency, ACOT have been asked to draw up a set of proposals which the Minister will go through in detail and he can then either approve, amend or vary them as he sees fit. To date ACOT have not been asked to come back to the Department with their proposals because it was felt it would be appropriate to have this legislation enacted before doing so. Therefore, at this stage I am not in a position to go into detail but I can assure Members that as soon as this legislation goes through the House ACOT will have discussions with the Minister and the Department of Agriculture and Food in relation to the package of advisory services they will provide to the farming community following which an appropriate package of advisory services will be made available to the farming community.
 As I said, the general thrust of the package will be to allow agricultural development to continue and to be accelerated, and to ensure that the most comprehensive package of advisory services will be made available. I think farmers will be sensible enough to make the most of the advisory services under the new arrangements. I know for certain that ACOT will use their best advisers to the best possible extent. As I said, farmers like other citizens are now paying for various services and they will pay at an appropriate level for the services which are of benefit to them. Therefore, ACOT will have to ensure that their personnel are up-to-date with modern developments in farming and that they will be able to compete with the many consultancy services which are available and used extensively by the farming community.
This legislation will ensure that the advisory officers around the country will be on top of their jobs and up-to-date with the most efficient techniques and technologies available to the farming community and will carry Irish farming into the next century keeping it on a par with developments in the European Communities. It will also ensure that our farmers will have the back-up services which are essential in modern agriculture in order to allow them to compete successfully with the Danes, the Dutch and their other competitors in Europe. I have no doubt that the scheme of advisory services which will be drawn up by ACOT in consultation with the Minister for Agriculture and Food will be an appropriate package and will not cause hardship to any sector of the farming community, either those who will have to pay or those who will not be in a position to pay. It will also provide an improved and enhanced service appropriate and contemporary to the developments which are taking place in agriculture at present.
Mr. Sheehan: Can I take it that the Minister is now giving the House an assurance that no farmer will be deprived  of the services provided by ACOT through inability to pay the charges and that farmers in the Dursey Sound, in Sheep's Head and in Mizen Head who are living between 20 miles and 25 miles, sometimes 30 miles, from the nearest agricultural instructor will receive an equal service from that agricultural instructor even though they may not be in a position to pay?
Mr. J. Walsh: As I said, in the scheme of advice there will be an overall national package which will not be confined to any geographical area. The purpose of this Bill is to achieve dynamism in the area of agricultural development throughout the country. It is not in the national interest to have any group of farmers or any geographical area left behind in the development of the industry. Again, I want to reiterate that allowance will be made in the scheme for services to be provided to farmers where payment would create any difficulty or impose any hardship or would be contrary in any way to the development of agriculture. They will be the guiding principles in relation to this enabling legislation.
Mr. J. O'Keeffe: This debate has been useful. I now have a commitment from the Minister that there will be an allowance in the scheme of fees to cater for those for whom the charges would create any difficulty or impose any hardship. I  am accepting that commitment in good faith. I believe the full implementation of that commitment will allay my concerns in relation to small farmers, those on low incomes and especially those in financial difficulties. On the basis that there is an absolute assurance to this House that they will continue to receive a full service from ACOT despite their inability to pay and on the basis that charges will not be collected from them, I am prepared to withdraw my amendment.
The Attorney General's Office have advised me that the purpose of this amendment is to eliminate the possible interpretation in the present wording that every individual contract entered into with farmers by ACOT would require ministerial approval. The inclusion of an express provision allowing for a general approval rather than a specific approval will make this section incapable of such interpretation. Therefore, it is on the advice of the Attorney General's Office that I propose that this amendment be included.
Mr. J. O'Keeffe: If this amendment is based on the advice of the law officer — obviously, it is purely a technical amendment — I am prepared to accept it. It is interesting that the law officer has focused on a point which was of concern to me in relation to my first amendment. The point now raised is such that if the Attorney General feels that this amendment is necessary then we can accept it. Regarding the amendment which I raised in relation to empowering ACOT to  impose terms and conditions in schemes which they would draw up for the Minister, I have no objection if that is considered unnecessary. I felt as part of my parliamentary duty that I should raise it for consideration. I have no difficulty in accepting this amendment.
Mr. J. O'Keeffe: The Bill before me shows that it may be cited as the “Agriculture (An Chomhairle Oiliúna Talmhaíochta) Act, 1986”. I presume 1986 will now be changed to 1987. This is only a small technical point. The Bill before me refers to 1986 rather than 1987. Could the Minister confirm that that will automatically follow when we come to the end of the year.
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