Thursday, 21 February 1991
Dáil Éireann Debate
6. Mr. J. O'Keeffe asked the Minister for Agriculture and Food whether his attention has been drawn to the fact that many farmers are now suffering severe financial hardship; and if he has any proposals to alleviate same.
In the agricultural sector very many measures are in operation which provide support and assistance to farmers. The EC-funded market support measures help the producer to benefit from returns considerably above what the market would provide; subsidies under the disadvantaged areas programme and all other livestock schemes are of particular benefit to low income farmers.
Over £300 million was paid out on these schemes in 1990 by comparison with £160 million in 1989. In addition, a further £40 million was paid in 1990 under western package measures and farm development programmes. The operational programme for rural development is one of a number of programmes aimed at the improvement of incomes and living standards of those living in rural areas, especially farmers.
In accordance with the priority accorded the problem of low income families in the Programme for Economic and Social Progress I have initiated the preparation of an income aid scheme to address the problem of low income farmers for which provision was made in this year's budget.
 Unemployment assistance is paid by the Department of Social Welfare to farmers who can satisfy a means test of their income levels. With the extension, reclassification and increased payments under disadvantaged areas schemes which I intend to put in place this year, extra payments of approximately £28 million will be made to farmers in disadvantaged areas, which should now extend to 72 per cent of the national territory.
Mr. J. O'Keeffe: I take it the Minister accepts that there is real hardship on many family farms. Would he agree that action is necessary on a number of fronts? Regarding the extension of the disadvantaged areas, a matter the Minister has been fiddling around with for the past three years, he should get it out of the way and stop messing. Regarding disadvantaged farmers, some of whom are living outside disadvantaged areas, will the Minister focus a package which will reach them, either through existing Community instruments or by direct income aids? Does he accept the position of disadvantaged farmers and will he ensure that there is some instrument or series of instruments whereby they can be reached? Will he also consider opening up discussions with his colleague, the Minister for Social Welfare, in relation to farmer's dole? Farmers have difficulties because of being assessed on the basis of the income for the previous year.
Mr. J. O'Keeffe: Will the Minister  open up discussions with the Minister for Health regarding the implementation of the supplementary welfare allowance scheme administered through the health boards? Does he accept that there is serious suffering and hardship on many family farms?
Mr. O'Kennedy: I am in consultation with my colleagues on related and relevant matters. I have launched at EC level demands for proposals from the Commission for fully funded European Community supports for low income farmers. I expect before the end of this year to see clear and positive results. Regarding the Deputy's reference to my fiddling around for the past three years and producing nothing——
Mr. O'Kennedy: I at least put in an application which means that at least 72 per cent of the country will be disadvantaged. Not one square inch was put in by Deputy Deasy over four years when he was in Government. I wonder who was doing the fiddling.
Mr. Deasy: May I point out that the Minister has misled the House? There were two proposals forwarded to Brussels regarding disadvantaged areas during my period as Minister, one in 1985 and a second proposal in 1987 which the present Minister torpedoed.
Mr. Deasy: The Minister has made a misleading statement. On Question No. 6, the Minister's projections for farm incomes in 1990 were badly wrong. What are his projections for farm incomes in 1991? Will there be an increase or a decrease?
Mr. O'Kennedy: The Deputy knows from four years' experience in the Department that the only figures that have ever been used in that Department are the figures presented by the Central Statistics Office. They are not my figures and when the Deputy was Minister he did not produce his figures. If there is anything wrong with the figures the Deputy should check with the CSO.
Mr. Leonard: Would the Minister not agree that there is a great opportunity now under the rural development programmes whereby Teagasc and the farm organisations could ensure that smaller farmers could be upgraded in the years ahead?
Mr. O'Kennedy: I agree. The rural development programme will be a vital component in rural renewal and the promotion of a climate of vigorous enterprise throughout rural areas. This is important not just for rural communities but for the whole social and economic balance in this country.
Mr. Belton: Is the Minister aware that a farmer's entitlement to unemployment assistance is asserted on the basis of a price structure relating to 1988? The Minister knows that in some cases prices are up by 50 per cent on those obtaining in 1988. I have constituents who are on the breadline. The Minister says he is looking for assistance from a European fund to  help out small farmers. The Minister should do that through his own Department and ensure that assessments are based on a realistic price structure as it exists today.
Mr. O'Kennedy: In respect of funding supports from the Government generally to agriculture, the Deputy knows that it has been the policy of all Governments in recent times not to rely on domestic funding but rather to insist that this be done through the European Community. That is the only guarantee of having effective, viable income in agriculture. If the Deputy wants all of us to depart from that, he should state that clearly.
Mr. Connor: The Minister in his reply detailed income supports such as the cattle headage scheme and other schemes and he also mentioned the rural development scheme. Is it not a scandal that about 15 per cent of the cattle headage payments and probably 60 per cent of the beef premium payments for 1990 remain unpaid at this stage? What assistance is that to farmers?
Mr. O'Kennedy: The only scandal is that the Deputy is distorting the facts. Well over 95 per cent of all headage payments in the area represented by the Deputy in the west have been paid well  in advance of anything that was paid at this time last year.
Mr. Boylan: The Minister in his original reply stated that he was concerned about the incomes of small farmers. If he is so concerned, why has he taken four years to seek the reclassification of my own constituency of Cavan-Monaghan? Why has he not sought the reclassification of all the constituency of Cavan-Monaghan? Will he not admit, as his Minister of State, Deputy Kirk, did on 12 December in this House, that an application for the reclassification of all of Cavan-Monaghan was made in 1987 by the former Minister for Agriculture, Deputy Deasy?
Mr. O'Kennedy: It was made in 1987 during the course of an election campaign by Fine Gael. Within one month of the application being submitted the Commission rejected it out of hand. The Deputy is welcome to come and see the reply.
Mr. O'Kennedy: I want to assure the House that the detailed application which I have submitted for both extension and reclassification will not be rejected but will be met in full because of the detail we submitted and which our predecessors did not even attempt to submit.
Mr. Nealon: On a very practical matter of interest to us all, would the Minister use his influence with the Minister for Social Welfare to ensure that in calculating farm incomes for the system he will use current income rather than historic income of two years ago?
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