Thursday, 16 October 2008
Dáil Eireann Debate
In view of the extraordinary interest in this motion by my colleagues representing rural constituencies, I propose, with the approval of the House, to share my time with Deputies P. J. Sheehan, John O’Mahony, Tom Hayes, Tom Sheahan, Michael D’Arcy, John Perry and Jimmy Deenihan.
Deputy Michael Creed: In the history of grant aid schemes introduced by the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the farm waste management scheme is probably one of the best and most innovative. The response by farmers provides evidence of that fact. The level of grant aid is 60%, while in some Border counties it is up to 70%. The top up available under the grant scheme is specifically focused on young farmers, which is in stark contrast to the body blows delivered to them in the budget. However, in the context of the scheme, the top up for such farmers was particularly welcome. It must be recalled that in responding to the incentives there is not any direct financial gain. In fact, it is a condition of the scheme that farmers should not be able to increase their productivity, and consequently their profitability, by virtue of these works. Therefore, these works are driven primarily by the nitrates directive. Consequently, farmers who complete works under the farm waste management scheme will have freedom to farm without fear of prosecution by local authorities or the Environmental Protection Agency because of effluent problems on their farms.
In the history of such schemes introduced by the State, it is probably one of the best that I can recall and, as I stated, farmers responded in their droves. Over 42,200 farmers were approved for benefit under the scheme. Farmers do not lightly go to the trouble of making applications if they do not proceed, particularly given that they are required to get planning permission for many of the schemes approved under the farm waste management grant aid.
They have also, at considerable personal financial risk and exposure at a time when it is not easy to organise finance, committed probably in the region of €2 billion of their own money to improve their farm holdings and farm waste management, with consequent benefits for everybody from that environmental improvement.
Our motion deals with a number of those applicants, a substantial minority. A briefing I received from the Department some weeks ago in the context of the Supplementary Estimate put the figure for the number of farmers who have not notified the Department yet that they intend to commence works at approximately 12,000. The likelihood in any such scheme is that there would be a number, a fraction of that 12,000, who probably would not proceed anyway for a variety of reasons. There is a substantial majority of the 12,000 outstanding who are committed by virtue of their actions to date, such as planning permission, and who would proceed if they thought they could complete the work within the timeframe, but are now considering whether it is worthwhile proceeding and running the risk of not being completed on time and therefore losing the grant with the additional consequent financial exposure.
This motion, to use a term that has a wide political currency at present, is about bailing out those 12,000 farmers. This House has in recent weeks seen the developers bailed out by the banks and the banks bailed out, through this House, by the taxpayer. What is at issue here is whether the Government will bail out those 12,000 farmers. The farmers came to the Government’s assistance in bailing it out during the week, albeit without consultation, in a range of schemes that were withdrawn from them. At issue is whether we will bail out those farmers and enable them to proceed with those beneficial environmental works.
As I stated, environment improvement is at the core of the raison d’être for the scheme. I await to see whether the Green Party will make any contribution to this debate given the key environmental objective for which the scheme was introduced. We know from recent EPA reports that, regrettably, there are issues of water quality that need to be addressed. This scheme is part of the jigsaw that will ensure the farming community meets its requirements.
The consequences for those 12,000 farmers, if it is not extended, are an adverse impact on the environment, which is not acceptable. Those 12,000 farmers will have to reduce their productivity and, consequently, their profitability which is not an acceptable scenario, or that they would have to be obliged to fund the entire scheme themselves which, in the current difficult environment in which all sectors of agriculture find themselves, is not a runner either.
The sole solution for those 12,000, and the consequences for others who are directly impacted by those works, is for the Minister to go to the European Commission to seek an extension of the deadline by six months, from the end of December 2008 to the end of June 2009.
On two occasions over the past number of days I have seen on the Department’s website instances where the Minister patted the Commission on the back and thanked it for acceding to his requests for deadline extension or for bringing forward single farm payments. The slurry deadline was due to expire on 15 October last and the Minister issued a press statement last week weekend stating that Commissioner Fischer Boel had acceded to his request, and rightly so. In fact, if we were to be critical, the Minister did not extend it far enough and I hope he will go back again to have it extended, as his compatriots over the Border in Northern Ireland did, up until the end of December 2009.
There is an open door because it does not make any difference to the Commission. They approved the terms and conditions of the scheme in March 2006 and they approved the financial package that goes with it. It is of no material difference to the Commission whether those farmers complete their works in December of 2008, a deadline in all of them, in good faith, would earnestly like to meet but, due to circumstances outside of their control, are unable to meet. It is immaterial to the Commission.
The key to this debate is the Minister’s reluctance to go to Brussels to state to Commissioner Fischer Boel the range of circumstances that have led us into a situation where 12,000 farmers will not be able to complete the works, the consequences of their freedom to farm without fear of prosecution and the environmental benefits of work that cannot be attained, and ask for an extension of the deadline by six months. I have no doubt from the soundings which I have made in the Commission that there is an open door. I fail to see why, given that the Commission approved the scheme initially, the Minister is not prepared to make that request.
The Minister has hidden behind the Commission. He has stated that the Commission says “No”. However, it has not said “No”. We in this House set up a committee to reflect on the reasons the people said “No” to the Lisbon treaty. One of the reasons is that politicians cannot have it both ways; when we want to take credit for something, we do it all ourselves, but when there is some blame to be apportioned, we blame the Commission.
The Commission is blameless in this matter. The blame rests fairly and squarely in Agriculture House and it is the Minister’s responsibility, on behalf of those 12,000 farmers, to go to Brussels to explain the circumstances. As in the case of the early payment of the single farm payment and the extension of the slurry spreading deadline, no doubt the Minister will receive a favourable response from the Commission.
People are not meeting this deadline for a variety of reasons that I will briefly outline. I came across an instance in my constituency of somebody who has planning permission to proceed with a development which has been with An Bord Pleanála for ten months. However, it has yet to get clearance from that board to proceed with the scheme. I have a letter here from a farmer in Athenry, County Galway, who states that on his third attempt, due to third party appeals and objections, he got planning permission in the summer of 2008 but, due to the weather and time constraints, now feels he cannot proceed with those works. The terms force majeure is used in the Department in those circumstances. I appeal to the Minister to consider, under force majeure, those particular circumstances to extend the deadline.
The broader economic issue is the thousands of people outside the farm gate. The construction industry is on its knees, and we have seen 70,000 people added to the dole queues in recent months. The farm contractors’ association states that 10,000 jobs will be lost as a result. I implore the Minister to do the mathematics on this. It will cost €100 million a year to put 10,000 on the dole. If one adds to that the VAT receipts and the income tax generated by keeping those people at work for an additional six-month period into 2009, I would suggest the net cost to the Exchequer is minimal.
There are also health and safety reasons. There are farm building sites where people are working long hours late into the night shuttering, pouring concrete and erecting sheds. All of this is being done at high risk because of this artificial deadline that the Minister, at the stroke of a pen, by virtue of a request to the Commission in Brussels, could resolve.
I implore the Minister, for the variety of reasons I outlined, many of which are beyond the resolution of individual farmers, to come to their aid. Weather, materials, contractors and litigation are some of the considerations, but the broader economy and employment is a major consideration as well.
Deputy P. J. Sheehan: I support the remarks of our spokesperson on agriculture, Deputy Creed. None of the Minister’s party colleagues is here in the House to hear me give this address. I hope they will be in later and that they will take heed of what I say. They have been whipped into voting against their constituents who elected them, or have they? Will the Minister take a stand against the farmers he represents both in his constituency and throughout this country? Is he voting in the best interests of his constituents or is he hiding behind the whip? Has he thought about what he is voting for and what he is voting against? I remind him that some years ago we had a brave Minister for Finance, Deputy Ruairí Quinn, who was not afraid to make the right decision when the civil servants in that Department responded to a proposal with the words: “On balance, Minister, we can find no good reason to recommend against this proposal”. The Minister and I know the same applies to Deputy Creed’s proposal. How can the Minister vote against a proposal that makes sense? However, as I have said previously, common sense is not very common on the Government side of the House.
I will explain the situation. The central structure of most farm waste management systems is an underground effluent tank. This tank is the first part of the structure to be constructed, with the slatted house then erected over the tank. The construction of these tanks was jeopardised this year by the wettest summer on record. The health and safety of workers were put at risk with excavations collapsing, sides slipping into the excavation and, in thousands of cases, flooding rendering the sites unworkable for weeks at a time.
However, even before this stage could be reached, a mountain of bureaucracy had to be climbed, involving the planning authorities, the farm waste management scheme bureaucracy, waste management authorities, health and safety bodies and the Revenue Commissioners. Last, but not least, it was necessary to secure the finance in the middle of a credit crunch. The fact that this bureaucratic mountain was not factored into the timescale for these projects is the root of the problem we are debating. If the new Oireachtas committee on Ireland’s future in Europe wishes to investigate the reasons for the rejection of the Lisbon treaty, there is no better example of why scepticism of the European model has gripped people than the typical use by Fianna Fáil of yet another three card trick.
The first card in this case is that Europe set new standards for the farm waste management scheme. The second card is delivered under protest where a grant system is introduced with multiple bureaucratic conditions and tight deadlines. The third card, as we all know, disappears; nobody knows where it went. The Minister might wish to blame Brussels but has anybody sought a reaction in Brussels to this proposal, as there might be more common sense over there? In fact, why has nobody asked Brussels for its reaction to this proposal?
Deputy John O’Mahony: I am glad to have the opportunity to speak on the farm waste management issue and the urgent need for an extension to the 31 December deadline for the completion of works. I compliment Deputy Creed for keeping this matter on the agenda over recent months on behalf of the farming community.
There is a sense of panic and fear among farmers who face the impossible task of trying to complete the approved work before 31 December. The fault for this lies with the Government, which put in place a system that was clearly unable to cope with the volume of applications. Although they received an extended deadline, farmers could not take advantage of it because the processing of applications took place at a snail’s pace in the Department. The process was delayed even further as a result of planning difficulties in many cases. Any hope the thousands of farmers had of finishing the work on time ended with the summer rainfall. Ireland had its wettest summer in 70 years, and this compounded the problem. The Government’s mismanagement of the scheme has landed farmers in this mess.
The Minister has indicated on numerous occasions in recent months that he is unwilling to seek a further extension from Europe. What is the logic of this stance, when it is obvious a good case can be made about the extraordinary circumstances? How is it that the bankers could be bailed out by the House with billions of euro but the farmers cannot be given an extra six or nine months to complete this work? Is it any wonder the public has become cynical?
There is a win-win situation here. The construction industry, which has been devastated in the last 12 months, could provide many jobs in the short term if there was an extension of the deadline for the scheme. If the Minister seeks an extension, he can support farmers and remove the risk to jobs in construction in one fell swoop. In recent weeks, some Government Deputies have made comments which effectively support the motion before the House. I presume they will vote accordingly.
The second issue with the farm waste management scheme is the delays being experienced by farmers who have already completed their projects. They have loans from banks and other lending institutions and are being put under pressure to fulfil the commitments they made on the assumption they would get their money from the Department when the works were complete. Everything is in order within the Department but the cheques are not being signed.
Deputy John O’Mahony: On the one hand applicants are being told they must meet the 31 December deadline or they will not get paid but on the other hand farmers who have completed the works are not being paid. The Minister cannot have it both ways. There was much bad news for farmers in the budget. The Minister should give them good news today by seeking an extension of the scheme.
Deputy Tom Hayes: I compliment Deputy Michael Creed for putting forward this important motion. Earlier this year the Oireachtas committee on agriculture discussed this motion and members from all sides of the House agreed that an extension of the scheme was necessary and should be granted. It is unfair of the Government to put forward an amendment to the motion; it is equally unfair of the Government Deputies to say one thing in the joint committee and do the opposite in the House. I challenge Members on all sides of the House to support the motion proposed by Deputy Creed.
Previous speakers have offered reasons from a farming point of view for an extension. I can offer the point of view of a little village in a rural area in the heart of County Tipperary, which I represent. In the 1950s O’Dwyer Steel was set up by a native of the village. Today, the company employs 100 people. Local people have trained as welders, fitters and steel erectors. The company has provided huge employment for many years and is now owned by some of the people who started as employees there years ago. Every Member of the House would consider that company a real example of how to protect rural Ireland. The Government talks about an endless list of programmes to show what it is doing for rural areas but this is an example of how to protect jobs in those areas. The concrete, steel and so forth for each simple project are produced in the rural area. Now the Government has failed to seek an extension to this scheme, which has had such an impact on this rural village.
The scheme does much for the environment and is important for the rural environment protection schemes and the nitrates directive. That is the reason it was put in place. However, there have been problems with bad weather, delays with planning permission and so forth. I have never previously spoken on a motion before the House that was so simple to deal with and had such an impact on a rural area. I urge the Minister to go to Brussels to protect jobs in rural areas. The situation in Dundrum, County Tipperary, is mirrored in many parishes throughout Munster and the rest of the country.
This is a time of great economic difficulty. Never has the Minister had such an opportunity to go to Brussels with a very simple request, that is, to extend the scheme, allow people to work in rural areas and allow farmers to construct sheds and tanks that are essential to the future of the industry. The reality is that many things are falling around us. There is hope for the agriculture sector if we protect it and work to develop it. I ask the Minster to consider what he is doing for people in rural areas.
My colleagues have described the weather we have had this year. During the boom in the construction industry, which is now paling into insignificance, one could not get steel. A friend of mine working in a steel company told me recently that five of his colleagues were let go and that there are five more to be let go. Those jobs will be lost before Christmas. There are many reasons for extending the scheme and there is much merit in doing so. As outlined by other Deputies, an extension of six months is required by farmers because of safety issues and the nature of the ground over the summer. Extending the scheme would be cost neutral. In the outside world, it would be called a “no-brainer”; it is a win-win situation.
I will outline how this problem arose and why there should be an extension. The Office of the Revenue Commissioners made life very difficult for farmers in that it was taking five to six weeks for VAT receipts to be returned. The planning authorities were to deal with this sympathetically and expediently. I encountered a case in which a man had to build a slatted unit 12 miles from his house after three months of negotiations. A planner dictated to the farmer that he did not need a unit of the size requested although the latter had 100 cattle. The planner was wrong and the farmer had to build two slatted units.
I know farmers and have been contacted by them on this matter. There is something very fishy going on. The Minister and his officials are adopting a partisan approach in favour of Members on the Government side of the House. I made representations on behalf of farmers who had their slatted units inspected last July but who have not got a bob yet. They have not been paid. Deputies on the other side of the House seem to be able to make progress and cases are being fast-tracked for them. I call on the Minister to ensure a level playing pitch for farmers. Six months should be granted in which farmers, contractors, steel companies and everybody else involved can get the job done on a cost-neutral basis. Will the Minister please ask the Commission for an extension?
Deputy John Perry: I thank Deputy Creed for tabling this important motion on the extension of the farm waste management scheme. We have just come through one of the most difficult and challenging summers the agriculture sector has ever experienced. The unprecedented conditions left many farmers on the brink of extinction. That has been compounded by the cuts in the budget to farm installation aid and in respect of the early retirement scheme. The Government, through its action and inaction, seems intent on allowing the lifeblood of rural communities to haemorrhage irreparably. In these conditions, it is critical that the Minister obtain an extension to the deadline for the full implementation of the farm waste management scheme.
The summer weather conditions were such that it has been nigh on impossible to make progress in farm building construction. The flooding in early August was such that farmers in Sligo and north Leitrim are experiencing extreme pressure regarding their storage capacity for farm waste. Weather and delays in processing planning applications and VAT receipts have contrived to ensure they will not have a realistic chance of meeting the deadline for the completion of work on their farm buildings. It is highly unreasonable to expect the deadline of 31 December to be met given the scale of investment required to have farmers operate at the highest possible environmental standards.
If the Government is intent on making environmentally friendly changes in the agriculture sector, all efforts should be made to extend the deadline of the scheme to ensure full completion, if possible. Farmers are investing over €1.5 billion this year in improving their farmyard facilities. This has a considerable economic impact in rural areas and there is an added value of €1 billion. The employment spin-off in the supply and services sectors amounts to approximately 20,000 jobs per year, which is considerable. What will become of them?
In my constituency, in which jobs in the construction sector are being lost daily, the construction of farm buildings under the farm waste management scheme is a vital lifeline to hundreds of jobs. This point must be made because the construction industry is on its knees. This is a genuine chance for the Progressive Democrats-Independents-Fianna Fáil-Green Party Government to effect real environmental changes that will have a genuine impact without forcing people on to bicycles or to change their light bulbs.
I seek immediate action on the part of the Minister. I ask him to seek an immediate extension because, as Deputy Tom Sheahan stated, it is a no-brainer. I want to safeguard thousands of jobs in rural communities and want to see real efforts being made to protect the livelihoods of farmers, who remain the custodians of the rural economy.
When one considers the number of jobs being lost in every constituency, one realises the Minister must extend the deadline. One should consider the pressure on farmers. Money has been advanced by banks but the farmers now feel they cannot meet the deadline. They feel very much threatened by banks with regard to repayments. The are being asked by the banks whether there is any risk that they will not be paid but they cannot give a genuine guarantee that they will. The Minister is placing considerable pressure on rural communities.
In light of the guarantee given by the State to banks last week, which will be discussed in the Parliament tomorrow, we are asking that a guarantee be given to those who comprise the backbone of the economy. The growth of the economy depends very much on the success of the rural community.
It is critical that the Minister cut out the doublespeak. Deputies on the backbenches are offering their support. Deputies were on local radio today highlighting the benefits of the budget. The Minister’s decision represents a death knell for farming.
The Progressive Democrats-Independents-Fianna Fáil-Green Party Government is talking about putting people on bicycles and changing light bulbs but I refer to a matter that will have a considerable impact. The Minister has an opportunity to extend a real benefit to the rural economy but, sadly, he is failing to do so.
The deadline can be extended. I am Chairman of the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny. Our spokesperson says the European Union is blamed for all the wrong reasons and that is why there was so much apathy towards the Lisbon treaty. The electorate did not vote in favour of it because it felt diktats were coming from the European Union. Control can be exercised here in the national Parliament. The Minister does not need permission from Brussels to extend the deadline; he can do so without a shadow of doubt.
Deputy John Perry: I assure him he has the power to change the deadline. Brussels is blamed for the wrong reasons. I assure the Minister that, if he approached the Commissioner, he would be told he has complete authority to make the change.
Deputy Michael D’Arcy: This is not an unfair or unreasonable request. Common sense must enter the equation at some stage and I therefore ask the Minister to consider extending the deadline. Hundreds of millions of euro have been spent on farm waste management facilities. If the Minister is threatening farmers that he will not pay the grants if the work is not completed by 31 December, he is not acting in the national or public interest.
Having watched the budget speech, which has been appalling in respect of agriculture, I believe that if the Minister is to close down the industry, he should at least do so in stages. He should not close it all down in the weeks between the launch of the budget and 31 December. The Chairman of the Joint Committee on European Scrutiny said the Minister can go to the European Commission to seek an extension of this date.
Deputy Michael D’Arcy: We were told in regard to the nitrates directive that these dates cannot be extended. Curiously, if one crosses the Border into Northern Ireland, the extension date there has been put back to 31 December for the spreading of slurry and farmyard manure. The Minister should not tell us it cannot be done. He should at least be honest and tell us he will not do it because he chooses not to and because his intention is to close down agriculture, as was seen in the budget debacle.
The Minister is a rural Deputy and he should be doing more for rural Ireland. What he has done today is a complete abdication of his responsibility to the rural community. Farmers are the only people spending money on building and construction at this time but the Minister is turning his back on them and ignoring all the good work being done to benefit the environment. Farmers are putting their hands into their pockets. All the Minister is being asked to do is to match that with a grant and to allow farmers to benefit by claiming VAT back. The Minister should not turn his back on farmers. His role is to support them, not ignore them.
Deputy Jimmy Deenihan: Of the 42,350 applications that have been approved, work has not begun on over 12,000 and it will be very difficult for those projects to be completed at this stage. A number of reasons for delay were put forward by previous speakers. There has been exceptionally heavy rainfall in the past two summers, with which we are all familiar. There is also a shortage of contractors because not all builders specialise in farm buildings and a different type of contractor is involved than the type who would build houses, for example. In a few cases, there have been hold-ups due to difficulties in the determination of An Bord Pleanála appeals.
A further reason for delay was that in a large number of cases throughout the country, animals had to be fed indoors this summer. It was physically impossible for farmers to demolish buildings where they were feeding cattle and they could not carry out infrastructural work in their farmyards. Another important point is that health and safety officers often visit sites where builders are carrying out this work. As the work can be dangerous, contractors are wary of, for example, allowing their workers to work in the rain, which is falling most of the time at present. On several occasions, workers had to stop work and leave the site. The credit squeeze is also a factor which made it very difficult for a number of farmers to get credit for long periods and they had to go to several banks to try to obtain credit.
Based on the EU guidelines for state aid to agriculture and forestry, the Minister should go to the Commission and ask that where there is a legally binding contract between a contractor and a farmer to carry out this work, the deadline should be extended to 30 June, as proposed by Deputy Creed, which is not unreasonable, and if it is possible to extend it until December, so much the better. Deputy Creed’s proposal is a generous and responsible one.
The reliance on a legally binding contract is often used as a procedure for the phased termination of tax relief measures. As the Minister knows, we have used this procedure several times, for example, with regard to the phased ending of the hotels scheme and the urban renewal scheme. There is no great difference in this regard. It is state aid in a different way. The procedure can be easily put to the Commission by the Minister and his Department and it would meet the guidelines set down by the EU for state aid. The fact that there would be legal certainty and a contract in place should strengthen the Minister’s case with the Commission.
To repeat a point made by Deputy P. J. Sheehan and previous speakers, will the Minister explain to the House why he has not gone to the Commission with this request, if he has not done so? Some 12,000 farmers will not start work before Christmas, which will cause a problem in the future because they will find it very difficult to control their effluent and they will not have storage capacity. Surely the Minister would be making the case for the nitrates directive if he explained to the Commission that the more farmers who have proper holding facilities, the less pollution will result. That is a very sensible argument which anyone would accept.
Deputy Brendan Smith: Thank you. Deputy Deenihan and other speakers referred to the fact that perhaps up to 12,000 farmers would not have their projects completed by the end of the year. To clarify, of those who applied for on-farm investment schemes over the years, approximately 80% proceeded with the projects, leaving a shortfall of 20%. The Irish Farmers Association carried out a survey which showed a drop-out or non-take-up rate of approximately 18%. That would bring the number of applicants likely to go ahead with their work to approximately 34,000. The Department has received in excess of 31,000 A cards, which indicates that more than 31,000 projects——
I welcome this opportunity to restate the tremendous success of the farm waste management scheme as an indication of the Government’s support for the farming sector in Ireland through an unprecedented level of investment. As Deputies will be aware, a revised version of the scheme was introduced by my Department in March 2006 to assist farmers in meeting the requirements of the EU nitrates directive. The revised scheme followed the introduction of an original scheme introduced in 2001, which was revised in 2004.
The revised and improved scheme was introduced in the context of the finalisation of Ireland’s nitrates action plan which had been approved by the Commission. The major changes introduced to the scheme in March 2006 included an increase in the standard grant rate to 60% from the previous 40%, the extension of the scheme for the first time to the pig and poultry sectors, an increase in the maximum eligible investment ceiling from €75,000 to €120,000 and the removal of any minimum income requirement, subject to certification of economic viability, so that all small farmers could participate. A higher grant rate of 70% was available to farmers in the four zone C counties of Donegal, Cavan, Monaghan and Leitrim. Additional support was also available to young farmers in particular circumstances.
Due to the exceptionally generous level of the grant rates, the scheme required specific EU state aid approval before it could be introduced. Negotiations with the European Commission were lengthy and detailed as we sought to secure the most favourable outcome possible for Irish farmers. The specific situation in Ireland was central to our negotiating position at the time. In granting the extension, the Commission took into account the likely high number of applicants for the scheme, the 100% pre-approval inspection by the Department, the restrictions because of bad weather on the construction of farm buildings and that, as most of the applications involved new building, planning permission would be required before any application could be considered, and the shortage of building contractors at the time. Deputies on the Opposition benches referred to the fact that the construction industry is not working at that capacity currently — far from it.
The European Union state aid approval, which included the deadline for completion of works by 31 December 2008, was based on the clear and often-repeated understanding that the scheme represented a once-off opportunity to enable Irish farmers to meet the requirements of the nitrates directive. In doing so, they would also, of course, be protecting their single payment scheme entitlements, which are now subject to cross-compliance requirements.
The closing date for the submission of applications was 31 December 2006. The scheme proved to be extremely attractive to farmers. A total of 48,580 summary applications were received from farmers prior to the closing date, of which more than 30,000 were received in the final month before the deadline. To accommodate as many farmers as possible, the Department allowed farmers to submit fully documented applications up to 29 June 2007. This flexibility ensured that all farmers who wished to avail of the scheme were afforded every opportunity to do so. A total of 46,132 completed applications were received and about 42,500 approvals to commence work have issued. The facilitation of applications is in direct contrast to the misleading comments made by Deputy O’Mahony.
The scheme has been an outstanding success, as demonstrated by the high level of applications received and approvals granted. In the 2008 Estimates we provided funding of €150.6 million, with a commitment to keep that figure under review until we had a clearer picture of what our liabilities would be for the year. Already, I have ensured that savings of €31.2 million from elsewhere in my Department’s Vote have been reallocated to supplement the original allocation.
However, on the basis of the information available to my Department, in terms of confirmed completions and indications of ongoing work, we sought additional funding. I am very pleased, first, that the Government recognised the value of this scheme and provided substantial funding this year and, second, that in the current economic circumstances, the Minister was prepared to provide an additional €195 million to meet our liabilities, which was approved by this House last week.
Deputy Brendan Smith: Deputy Connaughton should allow me to continue. By the end of last week, the Department had paid out €212.7 million in grant aid this year alone. That is in great contrast to the statement issued by Fine Gael in August that no payments would be made between the end of August and December.
Deputy Brendan Smith: They were not frozen. All farmers who complete approved work in accordance with the terms and conditions of the scheme can be assured they will receive grant aid. Total expenditure in 2008 on this scheme will be approximately €377 million. That follows on expenditure of almost €114 million in 2007 and a provision of €125 million for the scheme next year. That is further evidence of the Government’s continuing strong commitment to the farming sector and represents a massive level of public support by any standards.
Besides exercising prudence in the use of the funding available we must focus investment on measures that will contribute to the development of a sustainable agrifood sector. The scheme meets those important criteria. We must compete on the basis of quality, productivity and efficiency and ensure that we meet the needs of consumers and society generally. We must also ensure that the sector operates in a manner that is consistent with the preservation of the natural environment. This major investment by Government and by the farming community in the past two and half years will be beneficial for many years to come.
Investment in the farm waste management scheme is consistent with all of those priorities. The scheme represents the biggest ever investment in farm infrastructure and is an enormous vote of confidence in the sector, as too is the investment being made by farmers. That is well justified on the basis of our export performance. In each of the past two years Irish agrifood exports rose by more than 10% and 5%, respectively, to reach in excess of €9.2 billion in 2007. More importantly, a recent analytical study showed that the agrifood industry contributed over 30% of net foreign earnings from the manufacturing sector.
While commodity prices have eased somewhat in 2008, following the peaks of 2007, the medium-term price outlook remains strong and there is general agreement from both the OECD and the FAO that prices are unlikely to return to their historically low levels prior to that recent period. It is estimated that global demand for meat and milk will double over the next 40 years and Irish agriculture, with the benefit of the investment under the farm waste management scheme, will be well positioned to take advantage of these trends.
The Department has operated the scheme in a pragmatic manner in so far as possible. It has shown maximum flexibility in facilitating the receipt of completed application up to end June 2007. That ensured every farmer wishing to participate in the scheme had the opportunity to do so. The high number of applications received and approvals granted confirm that.
The EU state aid approval, to which I referred, allowed us, as an exceptional measure in the context of the nitrates action plan, to offer very generous grant aid under the scheme as a once-off concession on the strict condition that works would be completed by end 2008. Agreement was reached only after protracted negotiations with the European Commission and the closing date was a key element in the negotiations on the state aid approval. We agreed at the time to abide by the date and we have operated the scheme on that basis from the outset, as has the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in Northern Ireland in respect of its less generous scheme.
The position in regard to the deadline was made clear from the start. It was included in the terms and conditions of the scheme and was widely publicised to all those involved. Farmers, planners and builders were clearly aware of the critical need to adhere to it.
Deputy Brendan Smith: The special situation of Ireland, including circumstances such as bad weather, referred to earlier, were fully taken into account and were obviously a significant factor in achieving the exceptional extension.
I and my predecessor have consistently stressed to farmers the need to meet the deadline. In recent weeks the Department wrote to every applicant outlining the possibility of completing discrete units of work so that people who did not wish to complete the entire project as originally envisaged could complete parts of the project and receive grant aid for that work.
Deputy Tom Sheahan suggested that Department officials dealt with representations on the basis of the political source from which they came. I presume he does not want that allegation to remain on the record. I am sure he would not cast political aspersions on the work of individuals. That is not the way the officials in the Department work.
Deputy Brendan Smith: Not only that, but the applications of 12,000 existing applicants were abolished and Fine Gael Deputies trooped into the lobbies to support it. I recommend the amendment to the House.
Deputy Johnny Brady: The deadline of 31 December 2008 for completion of work by farmers under the revised farm waste management scheme introduced by the Department in March 2006 is a condition of EU state aid approval for the scheme. The European Commission has since reaffirmed that it expects Ireland to respect strictly that deadline. The terms and conditions of the scheme made it clear that payments of grant aid were conditional on the time limit being respected. The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has consistently held this position since the commencement of the scheme.
Deputy Johnny Brady: As Chairman of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, I have sought additional funds for the farm waste management scheme on account of the inclement weather experienced this year. The Minister for Finance gave approval to the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Brendan Smith, to introduce a Supplementary Estimate for the farm waste management scheme.
The scheme was introduced in February 2001 under the national development plan and it has proved to be a great success. The Joint Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, knowing that Irish farmers need additional funding to complete even more farm waste projects, requested €195 million in funds for the scheme this year.
Farmers have responded well to the scheme. Further funding will assist in completing the work and ensuring that we meet our requirements under the European Union nitrates directive. It is crucial that we continue to provide practical support for farmers. The farm waste management scheme is an essential part of that support. Farmers will continue to receive payments under the scheme for approved work, which has proved very successful with farmers. It is only right that we are supporting them in their bid to manage waste in an environmentally friendly and responsible way. It also assists farmers to meet the requirements of the nitrates directive. The popularity of the scheme and the practical support it has given to farmers is evident in the rate of take-up by farmers.
Farmers and farm families form the backbone of our rural communities. The Government will continue to support farmers in practical ways. Total expenditure by the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in support of the agriculture, fisheries and food sectors next year will amount to €3.26 billion. Spending on the rural environment protection scheme, REPS, is being increased to €355 million to ensure that the scheme, which already has 60,000 participants, is open to new entrants. The grant rate paid under REPS 4 has been increased by 17%.
Agriculture is still at the heart of our country, and will always retain a special place. The Government is focused on securing the future of farming families, who should have both the freedom to farm and to avail of all of the necessary supports, in recognition of the importance of agriculture to this country. The Government is committed to implementing the rural development programme so that farmers will benefit to the maximum from increased payments and new schemes that have been initiated. Farmers and their families on low income will continue to be supported through the farm assist scheme and there is a commitment to reducing the regulatory burden on farmers. Rural life is still an important part of Irish life and that is something we should all recognise. I compliment the Minister, Deputy Smith, and his officials on their work in the agriculture area.
Deputy Margaret Conlon: I am pleased to speak on the motion. The Minister, Deputy Smith, has outlined the position. The farm waste management scheme was set up in February 2001. It enabled farmers to respond to the requirement of the nitrates directive and thereby protect their single farm payments. Fianna Fáil-led Governments spent just under €66 million on this scheme between 2000 and 2005.
The scheme was due to close in 2006. However, after protracted negotiations with the European Commission, the scheme was extended for a further two years. The deadline of 31 December 2008 is a condition of EU state aid approval and the Commission has, time and time again, reiterated its expectation that Ireland will keep to this deadline. This was a once-off concession. All projects that are completed and which have all the correct and proper documentation returned to the Department by 31 December 2008 will be paid in full. People may have no worries about that specific aspect. Furthermore, as a Member from a Border constituency, I wish to highlight that the Department’s scheme is far more comprehensive than the corresponding scheme in Northern Ireland. The eligible investment ceiling is higher in the Twenty-six Counties than in the North. Added to this, more eligible items come under the remit of our scheme.
The scheme has been an outstanding success with 46,000 completed applications received by the June 2007 deadline. More than 42,000 approvals have been issued to farmers and approximately 30,000 farmers have indicated that they have commenced work. Despite scurrilous rumours in the past week, there is no truth in the suggestion that any farmer participating in the scheme will be unable to reclaim VAT on their costs. Everyone should make this point clearly.
Deputy Margaret Conlon: Where discrete units are completed — Deputy Crawford has his work finished — and documentation is submitted by 31 December, they will also be compensated. No individual farmer has contacted me about this scheme.
Deputy Margaret Conlon: Many farmers realised the deadline of 31 December was fast approaching and, in view of that fact and instead of going to the media, they got on with the necessary work to have it completed——
Deputy Margaret Conlon: With limited resources, awkward and most difficult choices have to be made. I am pleased that REPS will continue and accommodate farmers wishing to join in 2009. The allocation for 2009 will be increased to €355 million.
I encourage my Cavan-Monaghan constituency colleague, the Minister, Deputy Brendan Smith, to continue working as hard as he is at present in his new brief. He stated that the scheme ends on 31 December 2008 and that is still the position. The farming community will continue to form the backbone of society and we will continue to support the agrifood sector. We are committed to continuing investment in this sector. It is important that farmers complete their projects and get their documentation submitted——
Deputy Thomas Byrne: I am pleased to speak on the motion today and, with my colleagues and under the leadership of the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Smith, to bring some realism to the debate. It is totally unrealistic to come to the Chamber to call for the extension of a scheme which has been agreed and subject to the approval of the European Commission. The Commission’s approval would be needed for any extension and it would never have been granted because of the exceptional nature of the scheme. This has always been the date and there is no use telling constituents that a motion will be tabled in the Dáil to get it changed. That is not the reality.
Deputy Thomas Byrne: I am here as long as the Deputy and I was elected by the people, including the farmers, of my constituency. Where other parties considered my constituency to be a commuter belt area, the Fianna Fáil Party knew it was an agricultural area and a very rural constituency. This was not appreciated by any of the other parties in the constituency. I am glad to represent all the people of my constituency and to be elected in the same way as Deputy Connaughton.
My constituents have benefited from the programme and the constituency has benefited from agriculture by some €66 million up to 2005 from 46,000 completed applications. All of these applicants were told at the beginning what the deadline would be. The scheme has been an outstanding success and the officials who negotiated this with the European Commission — as we know from the recent banking guarantee, these negotiations are not easy — did an excellent job. The officials told people from early on what the timing would be. When I first became a candidate for election, the nitrates directive was an issue and this scheme came into being. Coming from a town, I was only beginning to learn about agriculture. I have learned a good deal from my colleague Deputy Johnny Brady and from the Minister, Deputy Smith, for which I am glad.
Deputy Thomas Byrne: Deputy McEntee assists me if Deputy Brady is not available from time to time. This has proved to be an excellent scheme with €113.8 million in grants-in-aid paid to date. Some €212 million has been paid this year and another €195 million under the Supplementary Estimate. This represents a sizeable investment in rural Ireland which is being used and utilised. It will be finalised before the end of the year. The investment shows the confidence the Government has in agriculture and its importance not only to my constituency, but to the economy as a whole. It is very important in these difficult times that this sector can thrive and improve and I encourage more people to stay in it. I commend the Government amendment and I commend the Minister, Deputy Smith, and his officials for their work. I ask everyone to urge farmers to complete the work for which they have approval and to do whatever is necessary to get this wrapped up by the end of this year.
Deputy Noel Treacy: I support the amendment that has been moved by the Minister, Deputy Smith. As public representatives and legislators, we have the responsibility and privilege of representing the people in this House. It is important that we do not mislead communities throughout the country.
Deputy Noel Treacy: In particular, we should not mislead the farming organisations. I commend and salute the outstanding leadership capacity that has been shown by the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food since he took office. Deputy Smith is an outstanding Minister. He showed his negotiating skills when he got this scheme agreed at Council of Ministers level.
Deputy Noel Treacy: He got the Commissioner to change various schemes. He showed flexibility when it was needed by Irish farmers. He secured early payments to assist farmers who needed cash at particular times. We have brought forward the single farm payments. We have delivered them. We are continuing to make payments. This scheme represents an investment of over €500 million in rural and agriculture infrastructure. It is a massive investment in rural Ireland. It is hypocritical of those who are misleading farmers to suggest we can persuade the Commission to revisit and change this scheme.
Deputy Noel Treacy: When that was done some years ago, before Ireland joined the European Union, it nearly bankrupted the country. When Fianna Fáil came into government in 1987, this country’s debt represented 120% of its gross domestic product.
Deputy Noel Treacy: Fine Gael abolished the Irish Land Commission. It left farmers with serious annuity arrears. It almost bankrupted the farmers who were unable to pay for expensive land. It did not deal with the matter when it was leaving office.
Deputy Noel Treacy: It almost put the farmers out of business again. What did Fine Gael do the last time it was in office, with the Labour Party? It put a preservation order on this country’s bogs. You denied farmers the right to cut turf. Now you are trying to change that again.
Deputy Noel Treacy: I am addressing the amendment to the motion. We have spent over €500 million on this scheme. It is unfair to mislead the farmers of this country by saying that the closing date for the scheme can be extended. It has been clearly negotiated by the Minister. It is impossible to change the closing date. We must make it clear that the scheme will terminate on 31 December. The cash will be paid. Over €500 million will be paid to the farmers of this country. Some €125 million has been included in the budget that was agreed this week to ensure that payments will be made on foot of claims which are made before 31 December.  These are the facts. The Opposition has misled people on this issue. It misled them in other ways in the past. We have to deal with the facts of the situation. Fine Gael took decisions that it was unable to follow up. It left farmers in a serious crisis. We had to renegotiate in Europe to save Irish agriculture.
Deputy Seán Sherlock: I wish to speak about the subject of this motion. I will stick to the point of this debate, which has gone all over the shop, quite frankly. The purpose of the motion is to seek an extension to the farm waste management scheme. The Labour Party would support such an extension, not for political expediency or point-scoring, but because we realise that a certain number of farmers will not be able to make the deadline. We support such farmers for reasons of common sense and pragmatism, some of which have already been outlined. I am aware of farmers who have not been able to get contractors to do the works which are required under the scheme. The poor weather we have endured this year has delayed some building works. Many farmers will not be able to meet the deadline as a consequence of a myriad of other circumstances, which I will not repeat. There is merit in raising, in a genuine way, the possibility of an extension to the deadline. Some people will be adversely affected if a change is not made.
The valid point made earlier by Deputy Deenihan, which has also been raised by the Irish Creamery Milk Suppliers Organisation, ICMSA, deserves further examination. I refer to the interpretation of State aid and the interpretation of the scheme. I wish to quote from a letter sent by the president of the ICMSA to the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on 25 August last. The letter, which gets to the heart of the debate on this motion, reads:
That proposal, which is based on a valid interpretation of the state aid guidelines, represents common sense. I echo Deputy Deenihan’s comments on it. In his response to this motion, the Minister, Deputy Smith, did not respond to Deputy Deenihan’s point. I call on one of the Government Deputies to respond to the issue that has been raised in an honest manner. Is this interpretation of the guidelines valid?
I do not wish to play politics with this issue. A balanced and reasonable view is being put forward by a group of farmers who will not be in a position to submit the card A due to genuine reasons. It is reasonable for us to echo the views of those farmers, notwithstanding what Deputy Conlon and others have said in support of the scheme. We have had superfluous speeches by Government backbenchers, but there is a genuine issue that needs to be addressed. Before the clock runs down on this debate, I hope that the Government will come back with a response to the points that I and Deputy Deenihan have raised. There is a genuine concern among a small minority of farmers and that must be addressed.
Deputy Brian O’Shea: Ar an gcéad dul síos, ba mhaith liom an Teachta Michael Creed agus Pairtí Fhine Gael a mholadh as ucht an rúin tábhachtach seo ar an scéim bhainistíochta drámhaíola feirme a chur síos. Baineann an scéim leis an treoir um níotráití. Tá dhá thairbhe móra ag teacht as an scéim — ceann amháin i dtaobh an chomhshaoil agus ceann eile i dtaobh na hoibre i dtionscal na tógála faoin tuath.
Tá lucht na tógála ag rá go gcaillfear 10,000 post ag deireadh na bliana muna gcuirtear leis an am atá ar fáil chun na hoibre faoin scéim seo a chríochnú. Ina theannta sin, beidh airgead á chaitheamh san eacnamaíocht faoin tuath, a chabhróidh le siopaí, tithe tabhairne agus a leithéid. Tá sé sin ag teastáil go géar i ngach cuid don tír agus tá sé ag teastáil go mór faoin tuath.
This is a reasonable motion and I would like to take a line from my party’s spokesperson on agriculture, Deputy Sherlock, when he quoted the president of the ICMSA, Jackie Cahill. It seems that 10,000 people approved under this scheme cannot finish the work in time for the deadline on 31 December 2008. The reasons have been explained by other speakers, such as the inclement weather, the high level of activity in the construction sector and the unavailability of contractors, as well as the fact that there was a scarcity of materials. Problems also arise when local authority planning offices are loaded with more applications than usual, which can slow up the process. It has often been impossible to carry out work on a farm this year due to the bad weather and the state of the ground. It can be difficult to organise the work in such conditions. Therefore, there are people with genuine reasons for not being able to finish on time.
Mr. Cahill makes a point in his letter about allowing people to finish where there is a binding contract or a supply of materials prior to the deadline of 31 December 2008. He provides precedents for this with some Government schemes. It is perfectly reasonable for him to ask that this matter be explored again. If it is the case that 10,000 jobs will be lost in the construction industry if we are not able to move a deadline, this is a no-brainer. There is only one road to go. These points are worth exploring and raising with the EU.
There are also health and safety aspects in rushing to complete the construction work before the deadline. Unfortunately, there are too many accidents in construction in Ireland. Accidents are always more likely to happen when there is haste, which appears to be what will happen in many of these cases due to the deadline.
I welcome the fact that there has been such a great take-up of the scheme. I understand that €330 million has been paid in grant aid since 2007. In his speech, the Minister said that €217 million has been paid out so far this year. However, there is a Supplementary Estimate of €195 million for an estimated 6,500 farmers for whom the works have been approved but who have not yet been paid in line with the charter of rights, namely, within five weeks of the date of approval. That should be urgently addressed. Keeping people waiting for payment in today’s world will result in additional bank charges and that is something from which every citizen should be protected.
The motion seeks an extension until 30 June 2009. The IFA suggested an extension until 30 September, while Mr. Cahill of the ICMSA suggested an extension to 31 December 2009. We are open-minded on this, but a date must be given so that people can finish in time to claim the grant aid under this system. This is a good scheme. It brings us into compliance with the nitrates directive. It provides for additional storage of slurry, something that is badly needed. There has been an enthusiastic take-up by farmers, but it would be a pity if 10,000 farmers who were approved under the scheme were prevented from doing the work. The benefit to them and to the country would be lost and all because we could not move a deadline.
I compliment Deputy Creed and the Fine Gael Party on bringing this issue before the Dáil. It should certainly not be an issue for division and rancour. It should be discussed reasonably. It should bring us to a solution that is good for the environment, the rural economy, the construction industry and the farmers who undertake the work. Those farmers have borrowed to carry out the work and that is difficult in today’s world.
A figure arrived at by the IFA is quite impressive in regard to this issue. It shows the improvement of farmyard facilities in 2008 will involve spending of €1.5 billion, a considerable amount of money which creates employment through construction and the purchase of materials. Money coming to farmers tends to be spent in the local community for the benefit of that community.
Given the uncertainty which prevails at the moment, any way in which economic activity can be stimulated, particularly in rural Ireland, is to be welcomed. It is a cause of regret that such stimulation should be retarded because of a deadline which, like all deadlines, is arbitrarily set and cannot be moved. It is lamentable and the Government should accept the Fine Gael motion. It should explore with the EU the suggestion of Mr. Cahill of the ICMSA that a formula be found for an extension.
Deputy Martin Ferris: I support this motion. In common with probably all rural Deputies from every party I have made a number of representations over the past year with a view to having the waste management scheme extended. The scheme is generally recognised to have been both widely popular and successful in encouraging farmers to make the necessary changes to their on-farm facilities.
These changes were, of course, required because of the need to ensure compliance with the nitrates directive, a directive which several Governments, going back to the early 1990s, had put on the long finger before being forced to comply. This meant farmers came under pressure to make extensive and expensive structural investments in a short period of time that could have been introduced gradually, had the directive been dealt with over those 15 years. The fact that those works had to be completed in a relatively short period has meant that a significant number of farmers will not be able to complete them before the end of this year. As the motion states, this has been exacerbated by a variety of factors, including the terrible weather over much of this year and difficulties in securing the required finance and planning permission. Everybody in the House will accept that this has been an exceptional year for wet weather and heavy rainfall, making land in many areas impassable. The weather has also restricted developments which had been granted approval to start, of which there have been 42,200. In addition, the sector of the construction industry involved in building farm waste management buildings and installing tanks comprises a small number of contractors in various counties. Dependency on those companies has resulted, in many cases, in a number of contractors carrying out between five and eight jobs at the one time. Many of those jobs are only starting now and will not be completed by 31 December 2008.
Should the scheme be closed there will be a detrimental impact on the construction sector in rural areas. Many small construction firms are experiencing the effects of the downturn in house building and the on-farm works associated with the waste management scheme have provided a much needed boost, saving many local construction jobs in the process. Since the downturn in the housing sector some workers previously employed in building have found employment in the waste management construction scheme. If it had not been for the scheme there would be many more in our dole queues and more people would emigrate.
An extension of the scheme would provide a significant injection of money and confidence into the construction sector, together with all the other benefits it would bring to the local economy, so this is an issue on which the Government ought to make a strong stand. The deadline will not be met and more than 10,000 jobs remain to be completed. Many of them have not yet started and they will not be completed before 31 December, not through any fault of construction workers or farmers but because of weather conditions throughout the year and the enormous take-up of the project.
In the context of the budget’s impact on agriculture, the Government is obviously not thinking along the lines I suggest. Cutting the money available for research and development through Teagasc may represent a short-term revenue saving but, in the long term, the damage caused by this withdrawal of expertise from the farming sector may well outweigh those savings. At a time when farming is under severe pressure, and when farmers are constantly being urged to use the new situation created by the single farm payment to venture into new production areas such as energy crops, it makes little sense to deny them the expertise and research found in Teagasc.
As with the farm waste management scheme, the cash investment which funding for Teagasc represents can have a multiplier effect throughout the rural economy by boosting farm investment and in areas such as energy crop production, which encourages off-farm enterprise in the processing of bio-fuels. In the current climate, with question marks hanging over the future of a significant element of current foreign investment, it makes sense for the State to encourage indigenous investment and indigenous enterprise, whether through the waste management scheme or by stimulating the development of alternative farm production systems, such as energy crops, and their tie-in with the broader rural economy.
I was struck by the references in some of the submissions to the report of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on the future of farming and fishing in the west to the emphasis placed by many on local sustainable businesses, many of them supported by the Leader programme. For example, Tuatha Chiarraí Teoranta points out that, while 21% of jobs in Kerry are in IDA-supported companies, more people are employed by local businesses supported by Leader and 70% of such companies were successful. In the current climate, boosting local investment in sustainable enterprises, many of them directly tied in with farming and fishing, is the way to proceed. Most of the employment in many areas of rural Ireland has been built around the construction sector and a significant number in that sector work in the waste management scheme project. There is a knock-on effect on local businesses, such as those which supply concrete or other materials for the projects.
We were told during a meeting with officials from the Department that a scaled-down version would be acceptable. I question their claim in this regard because when one is given planning permission for a project which will not be completed, or even started, by 31 December, a scaled-down version will mean that only part of the project will be completed or planning permission will have to be reapplied for on a scaled-down basis.
Deputy Martin Ferris: That is not the way to proceed. The nitrates directive has had an impact on the environment and the obligations it has placed on farmers in respect of a building have all been dealt with in the planning process. To go to a situation where a farmer will get a scaled-down grant for the phased section will mean that, in the current circumstances within the farming community, they will not be able to complete their projects because they will not be able to afford it. They will not have their grant aid which is essential for them to complete that project. That is a great mistake. It would be possible to allow an extension, which is the correct approach. An extension until June 2009 as proposed in the Fine Gael motion, which I fully support, would be the remedy and would allow farmers to meet their obligations and compliance as well as facilitating the best decision for our environment and the way forward for farming.
In the current economic climate, the Minister should take into account that some farmers have approval. In order to complete their projects, they need to get loans from banks to proceed but they are experiencing difficulty. Every Deputy will have met somebody who is finding it difficult to get the money from the bank even though 60% of the outtake is guaranteed. It may take time. They may not be able to get it immediately. They may need to guarantors, etc., in order to draw that money down. If they cannot draw it down, they will also be caught. It is a no-win situation for some people. Some 10,000 have approval and if they can get their work done, it should be supported. I ask the Minister to do what he can in his negotiations with his EU counterparts to put pressure on so that it can be extended for the necessary six months.
Deputy Eamon Scanlon: The deadline of 31 December 2008 for completion of work by farmers under the revised farm waste management scheme introduced by the Department in March 2006 is a condition of the EU state aid approval for the scheme. The European Commission has since reaffirmed that it expects Ireland to respect strictly this deadline. The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is continuing to process payments under the scheme and all farmers who completed investment works in accordance with the terms and conditions of the scheme will be paid their full entitlements. The scheme already has dramatically transformed the farming infrastructure through the major injection of capital and will leave the sector well positioned to meet the highest international environmental standards required of farming, as well as the changing market requirements. It will also continue to strengthen the competitiveness of Irish agriculture into the future.
The financial commitment of the Government to the scheme is very substantial, particularly during these challenging economic times. This is demonstrated by the fact that more than €180 million has been paid out to farmers under the scheme so far this year, compared to €21 million in 2006 and €114 million in 2007. The terms and conditions of the scheme made it clear that payment of grant aid was conditional on the time limit being respected and the Department has consistently held this position since the commencement of the scheme.
I understand the Department has sent written reminders to all farmers approved to commence work under the scheme to ensure that all work is completed and a payment claim submitted to the Department by the end of this year, which indicates to all farmers the importance of meeting this deadline. It is better for people to know where they stand. Whatever happened last weekend in Sligo and north Leitrim, there was a rumour that unless farmers submitted their VAT estimates before the budget, it would be discontinued. I know people who travelled from Leitrim and Sligo to Limerick to hand in VAT receipt forms because they were fearful they would not receive their VAT rebate. It is very unfair and people are very concerned. I received a number of telephone calls last week on the matter. It is wrong to send out the wrong message. People should be told exactly the situation and in fairness that is what the Government has done on this scheme.
The farm waste management scheme has proved to be very successful. The scheme was introduced in February 2001 under the national development plan and farmers have responded well to it. The funding provided assists farmers in completing the work and ensuring that Ireland meets our requirements under the EU nitrates directive. Farmers have benefited under the farm waste management scheme and it is vital that we continue to provide practical support to them. This funding is an essential part of that support. The scheme’s success has been the result of one of the biggest ever State-supported investments in farm infrastructure. The scheme has significant environmental benefits and assists farmers to meet the requirements of the nitrates directive. The scheme has been heavily promoted by Government as a way to meet the requirements of the EU nitrates directive and offers participating farmers up to 70% grant aid to complete necessary works before the year-end.
I understand the poor weather has created difficulties for some farmers to get works completed, but as matters stand the terms and conditions of the scheme make it clear that payment of grant aid is conditional on the time limit being respected. The last decade has been a time of great change for our country as a whole. The opportunities available to our people have expanded incredibly and farming is no longer a dominant industry. However, that does not mean that farming is a part of our past. The interests of farmers are still supported and promoted in this country. Farmers have witnessed significant change throughout their sector over recent years. Investment in agriculture is always crucial. Ireland is still known as a green island, a place where agriculture runs deep, where the connection between the people and the land will never be broken. Investment in the sector will allow farmers, processors and all entrepreneurs in the sector to develop and market new products and avail of new opportunities. Innovation is key to all sectors in society and agriculture is no exception.
A combination of strong leadership and a close working relationship with farmers and the wider agrifood sector is in all of our interests. We should all be committed to ensuring that farming realises its full potential and retains its position at the cornerstone of life in rural Ireland.
This scheme has been a fantastic success. It will end up costing close to €800 million as the work is completed next year. This funding is provided by the Government. It is not European money, as some people believe. It is Irish taxpayers’ money provided to improve farming and I commend the Government’s amendment to the House.
Deputy Seán Connick: I welcome the opportunity to speak briefly on this motion. Since the Government was returned to office last year, we have consistently acted in the best interests of farmers and have taken many initiatives to keep the farm family at the centre of Irish rural life. I have worked closely over that time with the Minister, Deputy Smith, and with his predecessor, the current Tánaiste, Deputy Coughlan, on issues concerning both farmers and fishermen in County Wexford. I have found both Ministers and their Ministers of State to be completely committed to building a strong and sustainable farming sector.
In the past week alone, the Minister, Deputy Smith, has made a number of announcements which show the Government’s commitment to agriculture. The Minister’s decision, in consultation with the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Gormley, to extend the time period allowed to spread slurry this year was a practical response to the bad weather that we witnessed over the past few months and to the difficulties that farmers faced as a result.
Yesterday, the Minister announced that he has secured agreement from the European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development to begin issuing advance payments, worth €532 million, under the single payment scheme to 90% of single payment scheme applicants. These payments are starting to issue six weeks before the normal commencement date for single payment scheme payments and are again a response by the Government to the weather conditions we experienced this year.
This week’s budget again showed that the Government is committed to the development of agriculture and the Minister, Deputy Smith, should be congratulated on a number of initiatives he has taken in the budget. I particularly welcome the decision to increase the investment in REPS to €355 million. This will not only increase the grant aid payable under REPS 4 by 17% but will also allow the scheme to accept new entrants. I also welcome the Minister’s decision to extend the farmer’s stock relief, the farm pollution control relief and the stamp duty relief for farm consolidation for a further two years and the stamp duty relief for young trained farmers for an extra four years.
Deputy Seán Connick: They should be calm. The decision to extend them is a recognition of the Government’s aim to give a future in agriculture to young farmers. The farm waste management scheme has been one of the most successful agricultural schemes the Government has introduced in recent years.
Deputy Seán Connick: As a result of today’s debate many more will issue their announcement in the coming days and weeks that they have started work. The fact that we are debating it here today shows how important this scheme is to rural Ireland. The 60% grant aid available to farmers in Wexford and elsewhere has allowed many farmers to carry out important improvements to their farms which they would not otherwise have been in a position to do. It has also been an important boost to the construction industry in Wexford and around the country over the past year in particular. Last year, almost €114 million was paid in grant aid under the farm waste management scheme and this year the spend will be approximately €377 million. This is an important injection of cash into the rural economy and has been of major assistance to both farmers and builders throughout Ireland.
Deputy Seán Connick: The Minister for Agriculture Fisheries and Food, Deputy Brendan Smith, has consistently stated that all projects which are completed and have their documentation with the Department by 31 December will be paid in full. The Minister could not have been any clearer on this point and I do not understand why Fine Gael sees the need to seek clarification on this matter when the Minister has stated several times over the past few months that these farmers will be paid. The Dáil has already approved a Supplementary Estimate to provide €195 million for the scheme to ensure payment. The only thing Fine Gael will gain by its opportunistic approach on this is to spread fear among farmers that their payments are in doubt. How many times does the Minister have to say that works completed and documented by the end of the year will be paid for before Fine Gael is willing to accept his word and stop spreading unfounded fear among farmers?
Deputy Seán Connick: The 31 December deadline was brought in to recognise the specific weather conditions that exist in Ireland. It is an absolute condition from the Commission that this deadline is adhered to if we are to seek grant aid for this scheme. I and many other rural Fianna Fáil Deputies have spoken to the Minister on this matter. He has obtained several important concessions from the European Commission to date. He has been able to bring forward the date for the single payment scheme. He has had the testing age for BSE increased to 48 months. If it were possible to extend the deadline for the farm waste management scheme, he would have achieved this as well.
Deputy Mary Alexandra White: I live among farmers in the Blackstairs Mountains on the Carlow-Kilkenny border. They are trying to comply with the deadline. That is a great start. The farm waste management scheme is a huge issue for the agriculture sector and for environmental protection, particularly of our rivers and lakes. Other Deputies outlined that the scheme has been a huge success. Under the National Development Plan 2000-06, some €66 million was allocated. A total of €113.8 million was spent last year, while €377 million will be spent this year and €125 million next year.
Farmers have enthusiastically availed of the scheme. It is great to see the positive results, facilitating the implementation, albeit late and sometimes enforced, of the nitrates directive. A total of 30,000 farmers have commenced work on this scheme. I am pleased that a further 12,000 approvals have been issued, that the smallest farmers, those below 20 income units, were included in the scheme and that the large dairy farmers who were previously excluded were brought into the scheme through the doubling of income units by the inclusion of milk partnerships. Funding under the scheme, such as storage facilities for slurry, silage, soiled water, mushroom compost or other farm manures and specialised slurry and soiled water handling equipment, have all played their part in cleaning up Ireland’s agricultural practices when it comes to environmental protection.
However, despite all this, I believe there has been adequate notice by the Government since March 2006 that this scheme would have to come to an end. Fine Gael is well aware that the 31 December deadline was a condition of the EU state aid approval and the Commission expects us to adhere to this deadline. Given the extraordinary and perhaps excessive generosity of the EU in regard to Ireland’s adherence, or lack of, to the nitrates directive, Irish agriculture must respect the finality of this dispensation from Europe. The nitrates directive has been a thorn in the side of the Irish authorities and Irish agriculture for many years. The directive has been in place in Europe since 1991 and it has reduced nitrate pollution in Ireland, which is particularly important. Recent years have shown some resistance to compliance, resulting in the threat of penalties from the European Court of Justice. Last year, my colleague, the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government increased the maximum penalties which would be applied to those convicted of offences under the directive. He did so within the context of proceedings being taken against Ireland for inadequate implementation of the directive.
There are lessons to be learned from the experience of the success of the farm waste management scheme, but I believe we need a higher report card than that. By 2015, all our waters must be of good status to comply with the water framework directive. This target must be achieved so that we can hold up our heads with pride. The recent report on our water quality should make us think, given that 15% of our lakes are contaminated to some extent and there are worrying levels of nitrates in the east and south east. I hope that farmers everywhere will not just ensure compliance because of an EU big stick, but because they know that to maintain a quality environment, protecting our water courses and our rivers, is an instinctively good thing to do for farmers, for our environment and for our Government.
Deputy Christy O’Sullivan: I welcome the opportunity to speak on this motion, This farm waste management scheme has been an outstanding success, with 46,000 completed applications received by the end of June 2007 deadline. To date, more than 42,000 approvals have issued to farmers and some 30,000 farmers have indicated they have commenced work.
Last year, €113.8 million was paid in grant aid and, to date, €212 million has been paid this year, while the Dáil has approved a Supplementary Estimate to provide an additional €195 million in grant aid for this year, bringing it to a total spend on the scheme of approximately €377 million. In addition, the 2009 Estimates, published on Thursday, provide a further €125 million to be paid next year. This will bring total expenditure in grant aid between 2007 and 2009 to well in excess of €615 million. This is an enormous commitment by the Government to Irish agriculture. Farmers are also investing hundreds of millions as a statement of their confidence in their own industry and who knows the industry better than the farmers.
There is absolutely no truth in the suggestions and rumours that farmers participating in the scheme will be unable to reclaim VAT on their costs. The Department’s experience of similar on-farm investment schemes suggest that approximately 80% of those with approval will proceed with the work. Thus, there is no basis to the Opposition’s claims that the 31 December deadline will deny up to 12,000 farmers the opportunity to avail of the scheme.
Deputy Christy O’Sullivan: The 31 December deadline is a condition of EU state aid approval and the Commission has consistently indicated its expectation that Ireland will adhere strictly to that deadline. It is particularly significant that the 31 December 2008 deadline was introduced as an exceptional measure, having regard to the specific conditions that applied in Ireland, including the weather, and the then lack of capacity in the building industry to get jobs started.
All projects that are completed and have their documentation with the Department by 31 December will be paid in full. There should be no concerns about that. However, in recognition of the fact that some farmers, for whatever reason, may not be able to proceed with the full project for which they have approval, the Minister has decided the Department will grant aid particular discrete elements of work. The Department has written to all approval holders to clarify those discrete units that will attract grant aid. This was a very practical intervention by the Minister to ensure that those proceeding with a more limited project would not lose their grant. It is worth noting that a similar scheme in Northern Ireland also has a deadline of 31 December 2008.
Despite the particularly difficult economic situation, the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will, through Exchequer and EU funding, invest €3.26 billion in support of the agrifood sector in 2009. This includes €335 million for REPS and its 60,000 participants and provides for a 17% increase in payments under REPS 4.
In addition, the Minister has ensured that the €250 million for the suckler welfare scheme agreed in partnership will be honoured in full, though the rate of payment per head will have to be reduced if the current level of participation in the scheme is maintained over its remaining four years.
Deputy Christy O’Sullivan: These are the farmers’ stock relief, farm pollution control relief, stamp duty relief for farm consolidation and stamp duty relief for young trained farmers. In addition, the Minister for Finance has indicated his willingness to consider the possibility of further measures aimed at young farmers in the context of the forthcoming Finance Bill.
Deputy Christy O’Sullivan: The farmers of this country need not be concerned for the future of agriculture under this Government and particularly under the leadership of the Minister, Deputy Brendan Smith.
Deputy Joe Behan: The farm waste management scheme was always deadline-specific. Farmers and the IFA knew that, as did Deputy Creed and his colleagues. The scheme has been a fantastic success and has transformed rural Ireland in terms of investment and modernisation. The Government has put over €600 million in funds into rural Ireland as part of this scheme and this money has been virtually matched by the over 40,000 progressive farmers who saw the opportunities available within the scheme. They have brought their farms up to the environmental and animal husbandry standards required under the EU nitrates directive and, in the process, have secured the competitiveness of the Irish agricultural sector for decades to come.
I applaud those progressive farmers and their leaders for taking the opportunities which the scheme provided to modernise their farms. Their far-sightedness and willingness to invest in their farming businesses, in tandem with the Government, has been a boon for rural Ireland and for the overall economy.
The farm waste management scheme was always deadline-specific and will end in December. However, in recognition of the fact that some farmers, for whatever reason, may not be able to proceed with the full project for which they have approval, the Minister has, quite rightly, decided that the Department will grant-aid particular discrete elements of work. Indeed the Department has written to all approval holders clarifying those discrete units that will attract grant aid. I commend the Minister on that practical and welcome intervention to ensure that those with a more limited project would not lose their grant. The Minister is at least approaching the deadline question with a degree of reasonableness which was not demonstrated the last time Fine Gael had the tenancy at Agriculture House. I am not very familiar with the world of agriculture but everyone in the agriculture world will remember how Mr. Ivan Yates, the then Minister for Agriculture, implemented the control of farm pollution scheme in 1995.
Deputy Joe Behan: Some Members opposite were on the benches with him at the time. He did it with a very sharp guillotine, chopping down new applicants to the scheme and leaving 12,000 already approved farmer applicants to fend for themselves. In the circumstances, we could be forgiven on this side of the House——
Deputy Joe Behan: The Deputies opposite can shout but I will shout louder. I have listened to them every morning. I do not often have the opportunity to shout them down but I have the floor now. They must listen and I will keep speaking.
Deputy Joe Behan: No Member of this House from any side could deny that Irish agriculture has been in stalwart hands for the past ten years. The Minister, Deputy Brendan Smith, has defended Irish farming interests at national, European and world trade talk levels with considerable skill and political ingenuity.
Deputy Joe Behan: His predecessor, Deputy Mary Coughlan, was an exceptional Minister for Agriculture, who was widely acknowledged for leading the farming sector from the front. In her new role at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, she continues to be a conspicuous defender of farming interests, especially in the agrifood sector where her Department has an impressive investment programme, which will underpin the livelihoods of those in the agrifood sector and those of all farmers, and that is to be welcomed by all.
The Minister, Deputy Brendan Smith, is producing the goods for Irish agriculture and Irish farmers. Nothing will change the simple fact of life that Fianna Fáil has been good for Irish agriculture and will continue to be good for it as we work our way through this current global economic crisis.
Deputy Bobby Aylward: I am pleased to have an opportunity to speak on the farm waste management scheme and, in particular, I am delighted to be able to clarify the exact position of the scheme and the terms on which it will continue to operate to the end of the year. I want to dispel some of the many myths and untruths that have been circulating for some time. Those lies have been fuelled by the Opposition for their own devious ends. I compliment the Minister, Deputy Brendan Smith, on his Trojan efforts to ensure the success of the farm waste management scheme for Irish farmers in particular and for the rural community in general. Like every other sector in the open Irish economy, agriculture is bedevilled by its own challenges and its own pressures. Agriculture is an integral part of our market economy and the farming way of life is a proud institution in this country. Farming is a very serious business, run on very strict business guidelines. We have to remain competitive, we have to continue to invest prudently and we have to explore new markets for our excellent produce. We constantly have to adapt our methods of farming to remain efficient, we have to ensure good husbandry and there is the critical EU dimension to all our farming activities.
As a farmer, I am happy to say that Irish farmers are a sturdy, hard-working bunch of people and they have always risen to meet the challenges put in front of them. Farmers in this country are progressive, they have a sound business head and they always recognise the important role they play in the community. Farmers are the real custodians of our environment and they know they occupy a special place in ensuring that the environment is treated with respect, that it is adequately protected and that it is handed on intact to the next generation. Farmers know that they have a moral duty to uphold the integrity of the land and the environment and they act on that fact.
The EU directive on nitrates placed a particular onus on the farmer in terms of proper waste disposal methods. To comply fully with the various provisions of the directive, Irish farmers were obliged to take on a lot of extra work and a lot of additional expense. The intensive investment in new facilities for waste collection on the farm has been very substantial and very extensive.
The farm waste management scheme was innovative and it has been an unparalleled success. It was introduced specifically to help farmers to comply with the terms and conditions of the nitrates directive and the generous grant aid under the scheme has been very welcome.
In 2001, the original scheme came into play and in the five years up to 2005, €66 million was paid out by the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, to Irish farmers, a handsome amount by any standards. The revised scheme received over 46,000 applications by mid 2007 and over 42,000 approvals have been notified to farmers, while approximately 30,000 have actually commenced the work on the new farm facilities. In 2007, €113.8 million was paid and in 2008, €212 million has been paid out to date.
I am delighted that the Minister, Deputy Brendan Smith, has secured the approval of the Dáil for the Supplementary Estimate to extend additional funding of €195 million for this year. According to my calculations, this represents approximately €377 million in State aid to farmers in this year alone. The Estimates for 2009 provide for another €125 million to be made available next year. Overall, State funding committed to farmers in the two years 2007-09 is in excess of €615 million. That is a very significant sum of money which signals the Government’s absolute commitment to farmers as vital contributors to our economy and our social and economic well-being.
The Government recognises the pivotal importance of the farming sector and is prepared to make very substantial funds available to assist that sector in investing in its future. The Government is confident that the future prospects of agriculture are very good. It is concerned to ensure that farmers remain competitive, that they can invest in the infrastructure which they need and that they can adapt quickly to the many demands which they meet. The farm waste management scheme is a very generous scheme when compared with other schemes operated elsewhere and, particularly, relative to the scheme operating in Northern Ireland. The Irish taxpayer is footing this hefty bill and farmers are laying out hundreds of millions of euro and are investing in their long-term livelihood while at the same time adopting a responsible attitude when it comes to the environment. I am disgusted by the usual scare-mongering which has surrounded the farm waste management scheme. I dismiss all the mischievous blather about what will be paid out and what will not.
Deputy Bobby Aylward: I reassure Irish farmers. Many of them are understandably worried about the VAT element of their costs. Read my lips, as they say: farmers will be entitled to reclaim the VAT on their costs and let nobody say otherwise. That is a statement of fact.
Deputy Bobby Aylward: The Opposition has been peddling rumours non-stop over this scheme. I condemn that as dishonest and disingenuous. It is despicable to worry farmers needlessly by spreading stories which have no foundation in reality. Farmers were concerned about the impending end-of-December deadline. The atrocious weather and torrential rains certainly made conditions very difficult at one point and there were big delays in carrying on the work. This problem was further compounded by the scarcity of suitable builders and contractors to undertake the necessary work on the structures. There has been considerable relief from this in recent weeks and farmers have redoubled their efforts to complete all the work satisfactorily and on time. Farmers are very serious about their obligation and with the increased availability of contractors, they will be well able to meet their deadline with some comfort.
The deadline imposed was not some whimsical notion on the part of the Minister. The deadline is an absolute condition of the EU state aid approval. The European Commission has been strict on this deadline; there is no room for flexibility here.
Deputy Bobby Aylward: We should remember that the 31 December deadline was introduced as an exceptional measure in the first place. It was a special facility extended to us and it was put in place specifically to accommodate Irish farmers. We were given some latitude because it was accepted that we suffer exceptional conditions here, particularly with regard to inclement weather and the difficulty in getting a builder to do the work. There is no flexibility to be had on this deadline but I am confident that farmers will have sufficient time and suitable conditions to enable them to finish the work in good time.
I speak as a farmer who understands the peaks and valleys of farming activity in the current economic and fiscal climate. When one considers the generous resources this Government has made available to the farming community, it is abundantly clear that farmers are doing well and are getting their fair share of State aid. At a time when we are confronted by swingeing economic circumstances, it is very heartening to see that agriculture continues to hold its own — and deservedly so — on the top of this Government’s policy agenda.
I am delighted to compliment the Minister, Deputy Smith on the generous financial undertakings he has given to Irish farmers. We endorse the farmer and are signalling our confidence in the future viability of farming. We know that with the correct financial measures, farmers can have a good return on their efforts and their investments. Farming has always been central to our economy and I am very pleased that this Government is putting its money where its mouth is: four square behind agriculture and the rural community.
Deputy Andrew Doyle: I wish to share time with Deputies Connaughton, Crawford, Joe Carey, Breen and Burke. Everybody spoke about how wonderful the farm waste management scheme is. It was first put in place to assist farmers to meet the nitrates directive. It is good for the environment. From a commercial point of view it is good for the building industry. I am surprised Deputy White did not mention that it is good for animal and human welfare in so far as it improves conditions for man and beast.
Much has been said about this motion being mischievous. Even taking the Minister’s figures, that there has been an 80% take-up on applications, that means that at 46,132 applicants, approximately 37,000 valid applicants intend proceeding. He said he had 31,000 card A receipts. By my figures, that leaves 6,000, which is 50% of other figures, who are unsure and have not started work. The reason they have not started work is not that they did not want to or they knew they could get an extension. They have not started work because they are not able to start work. We heard the phrase force majeure used earlier. We heard this was extended until the end of December 2008 because of the weather, among other factors. The date of that extension was set long before this summer began, so the Government knew the weather would be bad from June until October and said it was sufficient.
Deputy Andrew Doyle: When it was extended until the end of this year the weather conditions were not anticipated. Even if only 6,000 have not started work, none of them is in this position because they want to be on the last minute. We have heard of people whose planning permission’s are subject to appeals at Bord Pleanála. We have heard all the reasons specialised construction contractors cannot be got. They are not there because they knew they would get an extension.
May I make a specific point on Wicklow? In February I asked if the Minister could state that the charter of rights commitments had been honoured regarding the approval work completed and payments grants in Wicklow. She replied as follows:
Deputy Andrew Doyle: In its amendment the Government does not say the closing date cannot be extended, but that it will not be extended. I do not know whether I dreamt it or whether the Government side of the House who were at our agriculture committee meeting are all suffering from amnesia, but as far as I remember we had an all-party agreement to ask the Minister to seek this extension. We still have not heard whether the Minister saw it because at all times it has been said that it cannot and will not be done. The Government Deputies have said it. They are defending the indefensible. The IFA knew it.
I have an issue with what Deputy White said about 15% of lakes and rivers being contaminated. This is where the green agenda keeps coming in. The farmers are seen as the only ones responsible for that. It is nothing to do with industry or local authorities that are not getting money to upgrade their waste treatment plants. One would think it is all the fault of the farmers. She proudly stated that the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government has increased the penalties, and rightly so, for people who are negligent. Between 6,000 an 12,000 people who are trying to comply with the nitrates directive, and in good faith signed up to a scheme and secured loans, are being denied it. The Government members have the gall to stand there and lecture us saying we are here to raise people’s hopes or concerns. We are only trying to secure their position and let them know that because they behaved in good faith, the Government will behave in good faith and do its utmost to facilitate them to complete their works.
What will happen? Discrete works will be considered fine. Farmers can put in a shed but no tank and cover the floor. Next spring they can clean out the straw, dig a hole in the floor and put in a tank. I will not say what that is. Deputy Gogarty used the appropriate phrase earlier. It is nonsense. This is double trouble and a waste of time. Force majeure was cited, but in Wicklow it was the Department’s fault because it could not get the applications processed in time, in line with the charter of rights. I know it is difficult and that people, especially those from farming backgrounds, in their heart of hearts, know this motion from the Fine Gael side of the House is valid and honest.
Deputy Paul Connaughton: Last Tuesday this Government mauled every Irish farmer. It put its hand down in their pockets and robbed them. It is about to do the same with 10,000 others who will not be able to finish their slatted houses and ancillary works. I cannot understand the attitude of the Fianna Fáil backbenchers today. All over the country for the past six or eight months I have heard they would put pressure on the Minister because they believed it could be done.
My experience in this regard is that the driver of a lorry had to come back to my farm three times in the last two months with a delivery of concrete because the deluge of rain was such that he could not operate. A farmer outside Athenry dug his pit a few months ago but he buried the Hi-Mac machine when he was back-filling the soil and it took four days to pull it out. It has been raining since then. Can the Minister imagine how difficult it will be for that farmer to have the work completed by 31 December?
It is about time some common sense was brought into this debate. The Green Party Deputies spoke about the nitrates directive. This scheme is linked to that directive, which is why farmers wanted to comply. The 10,000 farmers the Government will now exclude from the scheme also wanted to comply. How has the Government treated them? Farmers are finding it hard enough to find the money to fund 40% of the work but if they must find 100% of the cost of building those tanks next year they will not be able to afford it and the work will not be done.
Politics is the art of the possible. That is what we are all here for. The western drainage scheme was extended twice or three times. The farm improvement scheme was also extended with no problems whatsoever. What is wrong this time? I am surprised at the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Brendan Smith, because I expected more of him. I cannot understand why he does not make a bee line for Brussels and make a case for the extension of this scheme. Is it the case that we have no friends in Europe anymore? Is the Minister afraid to go to Brussels because he knows he will be refused?
The Minister should be ashamed, as should every Fianna Fáil backbench Deputy, who came in here and backed the Minister. I hope the IFA delegation that is here has taken note of that because they have heard of the problems all over the country.
Let us leave the politics out of this issue. There are 10,000 Irish farmers who will do a wonderful job of improving the environmental standards on their farms if they are given the opportunity. If they are given an additional six months, in the driest part of next year, everybody will be happy. It will not cost the Exchequer anything extra because had the work been completed, the money would have been paid to them anyway. They are not ready, through no fault of their own. I ask the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, to go back to Brussels and do whatever is humanly possible to ensure the deadline for the scheme is extended and then everybody will be happy.
It has been argued that farmers were told about the deadline, which is true. However, there was no way of knowing two years ago that farmers would not be able to get a builder no matter what they paid, because builders were working on the big Government projects that eventually went wallop. When builders were available, many farmers could not get their bank managers to give them a loan, particularly in the last six months. They practically had to sign in blood.
In one small area of north Galway six small building contractors told me that if the scheme is not extended, they will lay off 130 people between them, including welders, carpenters and scaffolders. Who will take the blame for that? These are unnecessary redundancies that must be laid at the feet of the Government, should they happen.
Deputy Seymour Crawford: The weather conditions this year were the worst for 70 years. I find it extremely difficult to understand how the Minister could claim that in the negotiations that took place two years ago, weather conditions were taken into account. We must be realistic and admit that this is an extraordinary situation. This was proven when the Ministers for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Environment, Heritage and Local Government reached an agreement on a two-week extension to the farm slurry spreading scheme, followed by a further extension. Admittedly, that does not compare with what happened in Northern Ireland and clearly the Green Party Minister had control at the end of the day.
The Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food thanked the European Commission for agreeing to the aforementioned extension. He also thanked the Commission for acceding to other requests from Ireland in the recent past. He is obviously pushing an open door. Why will he not apply for an extension to this scheme? There is no justification, other than that the Government is trying to save money. The Department wants to make sure this scheme is blocked at the earliest possible date to reduce the amount of money spent on it.
The Minister mentioned that 20% was the normal fallout with such schemes, which may have been the case in the past. However, we are in a new situation now and farmers have to deal with this issue. They must improve their slurry tanks and animal accommodation in order to meet the nitrates directive. Farmers who do not complete this work are likely to lose their entitlements and go out of business.
The Acting Chairman, Deputy Johnny Brady, has a fine record in mediating on behalf of the IFA. He chaired a meeting of the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Food which unanimously agreed to ensure that the Minister got the message on this issue. I do not know if the committee ever received a reply from the Minister. Will the IFA continue to include Deputy Brady in slots in its publications because it has been let down badly by him on this occasion?
My constituency of Cavan-Monaghan is no different to others. Approximately 51% of farmers have completed the necessary work, 11% are halfway there, another 11% have just started, 3% are intending to proceed, 7% are not intending to proceed and the final 17% do not know what their position is because they do not know if they can complete the work or obtain the necessary finance. That is the best independent evidence I can get on the current situation.
The scheme, which nobody on this side of the House would condemn, is exceptionally good and was absolutely necessary given that the Government failed for 13 years to sort out issues relating to the nitrates directive.
I would laugh at Deputy Noel Treacy were it not for the fact that the issue is so serious. He went back 15 or 20 years and spoke about what happened in the past. The farm improvement scheme introduced only last year was supposed to run for five years but was dropped in seven weeks. Thousands of farmers have submitted applications for that scheme which have not even been processed. Deputy Margaret Conlon compared this scheme to one that operates in Northern Ireland. However, she failed to take into account what has been done in Northern Ireland over a long number of years. In that context, she was not comparing like with like.
The farm retirement scheme, the young farmers’ installation scheme, area aid payments and the new suckler scheme were all cut back by this Government as soon as things got difficult. I spoke to a young farmer this morning who has invested heavily in the farm waste management scheme. He did so on the understanding that his father would be eligible for money under the farm retirement scheme and that he would receive money under the installation aid scheme but both have now been dropped. Where does his future lie?
We have heard a lot about the great job that Fianna Fáil has done for farmers. I urge the Minister to take some degree of responsibility and to extend the scheme for at least a few weeks, but preferably a few months, to allow people to ensure they have a future in farming.
Deputy Joe Carey: I welcome the opportunity to speak on this Private Members’ motion proposed by Deputy Michael Creed and the Fine Gael Party which states the Government should take all necessary steps to extend the deadline for completion of works under the farm waste management scheme to 30 June 2009 and that the Government should ensure that all payments due are paid in line with commitments outlined in the farmers’ charter of rights.
The original statutory instrument under which this scheme was devised was issued by the Government on behalf of the EU is SI No. 788 of 2005, also known as the European Communities (Good Agricultural Practice for Protection of Waters) Regulations 2005 and more commonly known as the nitrates directive. This has some interesting content in that it does not mention dates other than that the aim of the water framework directive is to prevent any deterioration in the existing status of our waters, including the protection of good and high status where it exists, and to ensure that all waters are restored to at least good status by 2015.
Surely an extension of six months to finish this scheme would allow work to be completed in a quality manner. An extension of six months would dramatically reduce the possibility of buildings literally being thrown up for which we may pay dearly in the years to come.
In my constituency of Clare if one takes the rainfall for this year as measured by the official Met Éireann station at Shannon Airport one can see that by the middle of October, with two and a half months left to record, we have already experienced a 10% increase on 2007. To date we have had 1,010.5 mm of rainfall. The total annual rainfall for 2007 recorded at the same station was 921.5 mm.
Many capital projects including roads, hospitals and housing undertaken on behalf of the Government include a force majeure clause. The Minister, for reasons of environmental improvement and maintaining construction employment should introduce a clause such as this as outlined in the text of the motion and allow the scheme conclude naturally.
Of all the sectors that impact on water quality, the agriculture sector has done the most to clean up its act in recent years. This has been acknowledged in reports from the EPA. It would be a pity if this commitment to good practice would not be acknowledged for the want of a six month extension.
The Government has been tardy in its responsibility for improvement of water quality here. We have many villages, towns and urban centres with inadequate sewage treatment facilities. We have been fined and warned by the EU because of this tardiness. The Water Services Act 2007 which outlines the Government’s commitment and responsibility towards the improvement of water quality contains many ambiguities and attempts to transfer the responsibilities to other bodies. The farm waste management scheme has seen 42,200 farmers step up to the plate and commit to environmental improvements. At this stage, we should not run the risk of undoing the good work done to date.
The Government has never been slow to seek derogation from Europe when it is required. This issue stands out from a purely common sense point of view as one that should enjoy the same type of Government commitment shown in the extension and reintroduction of various construction tax breaks. I urge the Minister to accept the terms of this motion and go to Dublin Airport, possibly on his bicycle, pay the €10 air tax recently imposed, and look for this derogation from Europe.
Deputy Pat Breen: Like everybody else, the farming community suffered in last Tuesday’s budget and took a huge hit. I was amazed to hear Deputy Treacy state that Fianna Fáil is the farmers’ friend. Where was he last Tuesday when the budget was announced and the early retirement scheme and the installation aid for young farmers were axed, the suckler cow scheme was reduced and other stealth taxes were introduced including removing medical cards from elderly farmers?
Deputy Creed’s motion is timely. Are our farmers expected to take a further hit? I am sorry the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Brendan Smith, is no longer in the Chamber. When he served his time in the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food as a Minister of State he visited the World Ploughing Championships in County Carlow and urged all farmers to sign up to this scheme. It is ironic that now that he has the top job he refuses to budge and extend the date with the result that many of the people he encouraged to join will be excluded.
Some of the Fianna Fáil backbenchers have issued press releases in recent times reminding farmers about the deadline and even calling for the scheme to be extended. It is a typical Fianna Fáil tactic to act like it is in opposition and blame Europe. Farmers do not need to be reminded about the deadline. They are well aware of the D-Day. What they want is an announcement that the date will be extended. I urge Fianna Fáil backbenchers, particularly those who spoke today, to think seriously about what they say.
I see in this morning’s newspapers that the backbenchers are unhappy with the situation regarding medical cards for the over 70s. It is time for the backbenchers in Fianna Fáil to stand up and be counted. Will they continue with their age-old Fianna Fáil double-speak, saying one thing in the constituency and the opposite when they come to the Dáil in Dublin?
The current scheme has been a major success and has made a significant contribution in terms of improving the environment. I am amazed that the Ministers from the Green Party have not been in the House to show a greater interest in this debate, considering the concerns they have for the environment. The environment is their hobby horse. These days, they are only concerned with pushing bicycles and changing light bulbs.
The scheme has been a major boost to the construction sector and it can make an even more significant contribution to this industry now that it is in crisis. At the height of the boom it was impossible for farmers to get work done. To compound this, the bad weather placed further strain on farmers trying to get this work done. As my colleague, Deputy Carey, stated, none of us need to be reminded about the extraordinary weather we had, particularly in August when villages and towns throughout the country were flooded.
I have been inundated with requests from farmers about problems with regard to planning applications. They were concerned they would not meet the deadline and are under enormous pressure. The reality is that this is about funding. The Government failed to have meaningful discussions with the EU Commission on behalf of Irish farmers. It is time it came clean with the electorate and the Opposition parties. The Minister is trying to save Exchequer funds and deny farmers their entitlements.
Earlier this year the Department huffed and puffed on whether to support Irish farmers at the WTO talks. Eventually it was embarrassed into supporting them in an effort to secure a “Yes” vote for the Lisbon treaty. Many farmers fear that they will not be paid because the allocation for the scheme has already been spent this year. I urge the Government, including the Green Party to ease the pressure on the farming community and make an extreme hardship case to the European Commission. Europe needs us. Europe has a heart. The Government should not blame it for this. Otherwise, the farmers of County Clare and elsewhere will pay a huge price for Government inaction in not protecting the agriculture industry here.
Already, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Brendan Smith, has shown himself to be a failure. He has failed 10,000 Irish family farmers by not getting an extension on the scheme and many people doubt whether he has made any effort at European level to do so. The Minister’s failure at Cabinet level is further exemplified with the abolition of the installation grant for young farmers, the farmers’ retirement pension, the cow welfare scheme and the reduction of the compensatory allowance for disadvantaged areas. These are serious blows to farming communities and incomes, particularly in the west. Has the Minister any realisation of the difficulties these measures will cause in rural areas? The knock-on loss of jobs in construction and builders’ suppliers in rural areas is also a serious blow. The banks are pressurising farmers for their loans and calling them in. The current shortage of cash is an additional pressure for many farmers.
The greatest need for waste management works to be carried out is in the many small farms in the west that need to be upgraded yet the Minister does not realise this. I support Deputy Creed’s motion. The Minister must realise the seriousness of this issue and request an extension on the deadline from the EU. His failure in other areas will be for another day’s debate.
Deputy Frank Feighan: Six months ago I was taken aback when the then Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Mary Coughlan, informed me she had no intention of seeking an extension to the deadline for completion of work under the farm waste management scheme. This effectively was giving the two fingers to farmers. There are many reasons the extension should be granted. The EU would give an extension if asked but I cannot understand why the Government refuses to request one.
The cost of building materials is being pushed through the roof by this deadline, causing serious hardship for farmers. The price of steel has risen from €300 per tonne five years ago to €1,000 per tonne. The construction industry in rural areas needs this employment. In Newtowngore, County Leitrim, in my constituency, an agricultural engineering factory employs 60 people and if this were to fail because of a refusal to extend the scheme, it could have a huge impact on the area’s economy. Will the Minister request an extension to the deadline? I am certain it will be granted so we cannot blame Europe on this occasion. The only people to blame is the Government.
Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs (Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív): I thank Deputies for contributing to the debate on the deadline of 31 December 2008 for completion of work under the farm waste management scheme. The importance of the scheme has been well demonstrated by the number of Deputies who have contributed to the debate.
Regarding the timely issue of payments under the scheme, all farmers who complete approved works in accordance with the terms and conditions of the scheme will be paid. Deputy O’Shea raised the issue of payments. I reassure Members that by the end of next week, the Department will have issued payments in respect of all approved payment claims up to and including Friday, 10 October 2008. The payments will be kept up to date now that the Supplementary Estimate has been made available.
This will result in expenditure of approximately €377 million under the scheme in 2008, compared with €114 million in 2007 and €21 million in 2006. By any measure, this is a significant level of investment by the taxpayer and represents a strong vote of confidence in the farming sector. Substantial expenditure will also be incurred in 2009 under the scheme when all payments have been made. The scheme will dramatically modernise the agricultural infrastructure.
The deadline of 31 December 2008 for completion of work under the scheme has to be considered in light of the overall agreement secured by Ireland with the European Commission. Members will be aware the nitrates directive posed particular difficulties for Ireland as a result of a finding by the European Court of Justice in 2004 that Ireland was in breach of the terms of the directive. It was recognised that a very substantial body of investment needed to be undertaken on farms in order that Ireland would comply with the higher environmental standards required by the directive.
Deputies Jimmy Deenihan, Seán Sherlock and Brian O’Shea referred to the ICMSA proposal that a legally binding contract between farmers and the Department to complete all work under the scheme would meet state aid requirements and allow for an extension of the deadline. The position is clear on this — the deadline must be maintained. In correspondence, the Commission stated the applicable state aid rules appear to deny such an extension. It also pointed out that the deadline granted was an exceptional one, taking account of Ireland’s specific situation.
The revised farm waste management scheme, introduced in March 2006 following a wide-ranging consultative process, was the driver which enabled farmers to tackle substantial levels of investment required. The changes included an increase in the standard grant rate from 40% to 60%, with a grant rate of 70% in the four zone C counties of Cavan, Donegal, Leitrim and Monaghan. It gave additional support for young farmers; an increase in the maximum eligible investment ceiling; and removed the minimum income requirement from the scheme so that all small farmers could participate. For the small farmers on the west coast, that was an important and welcome measure.
As Deputies acknowledged, the scheme has been a tremendous success, with 48,580 applications received from farmers. This led to 46,132 completed application forms from farmers prior to the closing date. Some 42,500 approvals to commence work under the scheme have issued to farmers, with the balance being accounted for by withdrawn applications, failure to secure planning permission or the receipt of multiple applications from a single farmer.
Some Members suggested that between 10,000 and 12,000 farmers would not be in a position to complete works under the scheme by the deadline. However, we know that time and again where a large number of applications are approved, only approximately 80% complete the scheme. In the case of this scheme, 80% of 42,500 approvals is approximately 34,000 job completions. To date, 31,000 farmers have confirmed they have started work. We must encourage the remaining 3,000 farmers who were likely to complete the work in any case to complete it by the deadline.
By creating false expectations that there may be an extension, some people may hold back whereas if they began work now, they could complete it within the deadline and draw down the grant. We know that in Ireland, particularly rural Ireland, when a deadline is in place, people have a habit of going right up to it. There are many builders willing to work. There is a great ability in Ireland to meet a deadline on the last day. I encourage those farmers who are anxious to proceed with their works to get them completed and draw down the grant. The moneys are in place to pay any farmer who complies with the scheme by 31 December 2008.
Deputy Shane McEntee: Acting Chairman, you may have been correct earlier when you said debating farming issues is like football — it brings the worst out of people. I apologise for some of my actions. I wish to share time with Deputies Joe McHugh and Noel J. Coonan.
Deputy Shane McEntee: As we speak, a group of farmers is meeting in my County Meath constituency, not just to discuss this issue, but farming in general. This time last year, they were receiving 44 cent per gallon for winter milk and 40 cent for spring milk. The corresponding figures this year are 38 cent and 27 cent. Beef, lamb and pork prices have remained stagnant, while winter crops are down by €100 per tonne. Last year there was a great lift in farming due to price rises, favourable weather conditions and the installation grant. The latter grant and others encouraged young farmers’ endeavours. Since I became a farmer, after leaving school aged 15, the agricultural sector has varied through good times and bad. If there was a chance of progressing, farmers always pumped all their money into the land, even neglecting the kitchen, so their wives suffered. Thanks to those grants over the past two years many young people decided to return home and engage in farming. They did not want to do so under the old conditions, however, preferring to up-date farming methods like their counterparts in other countries.
Ireland has the best food in the world so it is a shame that there should be any suggestion of stopping the growth that began in the farming sector two years ago. The world’s population is growing exponentially and food is the game to be in. Ireland has a good name in that regard, but the budget has stagnated everything in the one industry that has built up this country. Many people left farming to engage in the building industry, but they will now have to return to their farms. In the coming decades, we will have a population of 6.5 million. A shortage of food is forecast internationally so there is no point in cutting agricultural subsidies here. The sector should be allowed to continue to grow by pumping in Government aid. We have the land, skills and qualities required so it is unacceptable to cut assistance to farmers. It is the wrong time to do so.
The Acting Chairman, Deputy Johnny Brady, and I come from similar parishes in the same county where eight out of ten people have left farming. Some of the best farmers in the country have chosen to leave, and the acting Chairman knows who I am talking about. In addition, their sons did not go into farming. Installation and other grants persuaded a few to remain in farming, but I know several young farmers who plan to quit the agricultural sector next year.
I urge the Government to encourage the greatest industry this country has ever had. It should not stop half way, like a cow we used to have. She would fill a bucket of milk and then kick it over. That is basically what this budget was about — it kicked the bucket when it was full of milk, leaving farmers high and dry. I urge the Government to use its power to get the agricultural industry back on track. We should have a two-day debate on the agricultural sector, which will put this country back on the road to recovery when everything else has failed.
Deputy Joe McHugh: I thank Deputy Creed for moving this motion on the farm waste management scheme. It is timely for ongoing projects and farmers who find themselves in limbo. This is more than just an argument about farmers, it is an economic argument in light of the downturn which has also hit the construction sector. Men who were employed in the housing construction sector are now finding substitute work plastering and building slatted sheds. Government backbenchers may hear what farmers and local communities generally are saying, but they are not listening. People are dreading the approach of January and February because things will get worse then. If there is no plastering or roofing work, things will go pear-shaped. The Fianna Fáil Party will have to deal with this, although it is not reading what is happening out there.
The urban myth about farmers is that they are always getting hand-outs, but let us have a reality check. Farmers form the backbone of the country. While houses were being built and 40% of that revenue was going into the Exchequer, farmers were still engaged in primary production. They were the only people doing so because the Government had already shafted the fishermen. However, farmers were working against a background of losses and they still continue in that way. As the Minister knows from his area, store lambs are being given away for €35 or €40. Nonetheless, Tuesday’s budget removed the disadvantaged area payment, raised VAT and put an extra 1% levy on farmers. In addition, the budget increased university registration fees for farmers’ sons and daughters.
The Minister said that farmers have the ability to get this done between now and the end of December, but let us set the record straight. My colleagues spoke strongly about the effect of poor weather conditions this year. While the sun was shining the Government took the credit, but when it rained it blamed the Opposition. It rained this summer, which was the worst in 70 years, so how in the name of God does the Minister expect farmers to be ahead of schedule?
Steel companies in Donegal have an eight-week waiting list for roof sheeting. How can the Minister say that farmers have the ability to get this done when there is such a waiting list? Can the Minister answer that question? Government backbenchers are not doing their job because they are not in touch with the people. They are not listening to what is going on and that is why the Minister is making such a nonsensical point. Unless he brings in Paul Daniels with a magic wand, men who are not supplied with sheeting cannot put roofs on. The Minister should explain how he intends to get around that point.
Deputy Noel J. Coonan: I support the motion tabled by Deputy Creed. The Minister should not be afraid to go to Europe and get an extension for this scheme for the farmers concerned. The numbers do not really matter because following the budget, farmers are an endangered species. Every farmer is vital to the well-being of this country. Look at what the French did. They were never afraid to protect their agriculture and do not stand on ceremony because of bureaucracy. Look at the way President Sarkozy put Mandelson back in his box on the WTO negotiations. Europe wants the Lisbon treaty to be passed by the extended farming community, which is the backbone of rural Ireland, so Europe will listen. We were told that the Lisbon treaty could not be changed and was written in stone, but now we know it will be changed. This can be done in Europe so the Minister should go there with confidence.
Part of the problem is that the Green tail is wagging a toothless Fianna Fáil dog. The Green Party’s priorities are bicycles and bulbs. If they get their way in rural Ireland, which they are getting from this Fianna Fáil-led Government, all that will be left are bachelors, briars, bullocks and bushes to throw them into.
Deputy Noel J. Coonan: I listened to the hypocrisy of Government backbenchers shouting across in a mealy-mouthed way at Fine Gael, the party that supplied Ministers of the highest standard to the Department of Agriculture. At the same time, they conveniently forget, like Deputy Treacy did, that Micheál Ó Cinnéide, as Minister for Agriculture and Food, closed the sugar factory in Tuam. That was quickly followed by Thurles, Carlow and Mallow, which was finished off by the former Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Mary Coughlan. They devastated the sugar beet industry, but the backbenchers conveniently forget that.
I finish on a word of warning to the Minister, Deputy Smith, because he is a decent man and I wish him well in agriculture. It is important he does well, for farmers and for the country. He should beware. He should not be looking at this side for enemies. Look behind you, Minister, because your backbenchers are in the corridors of this House, and out on the highways and by-ways of rural Ireland, saying something different to what they are saying in here. They are saying that the Minister is the weakest link and we know what happens the weakest link.
Deputy Michael Creed: I thank my colleagues for their support for the motion. I thank all the Deputies who contributed. In particular, I thank the Labour Party and Sinn Féin for their support for the motion. I am particularly disappointed at the level of Government backbench interest in the motion. Apart from coming in delivering prepared scripts and disappearing, there does not appear to be any grasp of the magnitude of the issue with which we are dealing.
I will come to the issue of the numbers game. Whether it is 3,000, 5,000, 9,000 or 12,000 is not the material point. The issue is quite simple. What is abundantly obvious is, as Deputy McHugh stated, that this is a financial issue. This side of the House is saying that on balance this is, as Deputy Tom Sheahan stated, a “no-brainer” financially. If one takes the Minister’s supposition that it could be as few as 3,000 farmers——
Deputy Michael Creed: They will go out of business because they will not be able to afford to 100% fund it themselves, or else they will operate outside the law with all of the consequent detrimental impact on the environment which none of us in this House wants to see happening.
Whether it is 3,000 or 12,000, or as I suggest somewhere in between, those farmers will be put out of business. That is the legacy that hangs on this motion, that so many farmers will be forced to shut the gate, put the place up for sale and get out of the business. That is what we want to avoid and that is what the Government is forcing those farmers to do ultimately. It will not happen on 31 December, but it will happen over a protracted period of time because they will be hounded out of business by virtue of those whose job it is, rightly, to police the environment, and that is the consequence. Regardless of whether it is 3,000 or 12,000, that is the real human tragedy in this motion.
There are immediate consequences for more than just those farmers. The association of contractors representing those involved in construction of farm buildings has stated quite clearly that some 10,000 people will be added to the dole queues in January if the scheme is not extended. I have a letter from a small west Cork concrete company which clearly states, as has been instanced by many speakers in this debate, that it will lay off 40 people on Christmas week. Deputy Tom Hayes outlined the case of a long-established company in County Tipperary involved in the business of steel-shed erection. That is replicated all over the country and those are the 10,000 workers who, in terms of social welfare alone, would cost in the region of €100 million to the Exchequer to keep paid to do nothing when there is work that can be done, whether for 3,000 or 10,000 farmers, if the deadline was extended.
We are confident if the Minister went to Europe that the Commission would say “Yes” to a request to extend it. I do not buy all of this argument, that in March 2006 the Commission factored in the weather for 2008. That is an absurdity that the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food came out with, and an insult to the intelligence of all of us around the table. The Commission would respond. It is the typical sleeveen politics of Fianna Fáil that if there is credit going for anything that comes from Europe we will take it, but if there is blame to be dished out we will hide behind the Commission and let it take the flak. That is what substantially contributed to the Lisbon treaty going down the Swanee.
I would be pleased to take our chances if Deputy Ó Cuív’s colleagues in Government decided — even if he does not want to pay the departure tax in Dublin Airport and get on his bike to cycle out there — to put a stamp on an envelope and write to the Commission, or send an e-mail, requesting it. I am absolutely confident the Commission will respond favourably to a well-argued case, and the Minister should send the Commission the contributions from this side of the House.
Deputy Michael Creed: At least Deputy Behan concluded his remarks by stating that he did not know much about farming, and that probably explained much of it. A deal of what I heard from others, but particularly from Deputy Treacy, showed a clear failure to grasp what is at stake in terms of this motion.
All of the points have been made quite clearly. The Government has form on this one, as somebody referred to previously, in that the suspension of the farm investment scheme has been backdated so there are now in limbo thousands of farmers who had their applications submitted between 20 and 30 October last.
Deputy Michael Creed: We will take no lectures or lessons from Deputy Treacy about the merits of Fianna Fáil and, as Deputy Coonan articulated, the closure of the sugar industry by a series of Fianna Fáil agriculture Ministers.
I am disappointed, for example, that the two Independent Deputies who represent rural constituencies have not seen fit to attend at all, namely Deputy Healy-Rae and Deputy Lowry, the latter of whom obviously would have an interest in the points made on local employment by Deputy Tom Hayes.
This has been a bad week for farmers. Most Fianna Fáil Deputies refused to address the issue at the heart of this debate about the farm waste management scheme. Let me digress and take the same liberty for a moment. It has been a bad week for young farmers. Some 92% of farm holdings are held by persons who are over 35 years and in one fell swoop the three-legged stool there to encourage land mobility — installation aid, the early retirement scheme and stamp duty exemption — has been cropped to a one-legged stool that will collapse in terms of transferring land to young farmers.
Deputy Michael Creed: This is an opportunity for the Government to redeem itself in the eyes of farmers and the wider community whose jobs in construction depend on it. I recommend the motion to the House.
|Ahern, Michael.||Ahern, Noel.|
|Andrews, Barry.||Andrews, Chris.|
|Ardagh, Seán.||Aylward, Bobby.|
|Behan, Joe.||Blaney, Niall.|
|Brady, Áine.||Brady, Cyprian.|
|Brady, Johnny.||Browne, John.|
|Byrne, Thomas.||Carey, Pat.|
|Collins, Niall.||Conlon, Margaret.|
|Connick, Seán.||Coughlan, Mary.|
|Cregan, John.||Cuffe, Ciarán.|
|Cullen, Martin.||Curran, John.|
|Dempsey, Noel.||Devins, Jimmy.|
|Dooley, Timmy.||Finneran, Michael.|
|Fitzpatrick, Michael.||Fleming, Seán.|
|Flynn, Beverley.||Gallagher, Pat The Cope.|
|Gogarty, Paul.||Gormley, John.|
|Grealish, Noel.||Hanafin, Mary.|
|Harney, Mary.||Haughey, Seán.|
|Hoctor, Máire.||Kelleher, Billy.|
|Kelly, Peter.||Kenneally, Brendan.|
|Kennedy, Michael.||Kirk, Seamus.|
|Kitt, Michael P.||Lenihan, Conor.|
|McEllistrim, Thomas.||McGrath, Finian.|
|McGrath, Mattie.||McGrath, Michael.|
|McGuinness, John.||Mansergh, Martin.|
|Moynihan, Michael.||Mulcahy, Michael.|
|Ó Cuív, Éamon.||Ó Fearghaíl, Seán.|
|O’Brien, Darragh.||O’Connor, Charlie.|
|O’Dea, Willie.||O’Flynn, Noel.|
|O’Hanlon, Rory.||O’Keeffe, Edward.|
|O’Rourke, Mary.||O’Sullivan, Christy.|
|Power, Seán.||Ryan, Eamon.|
|Scanlon, Eamon.||Smith, Brendan.|
|Treacy, Noel.||Wallace, Mary.|
|White, Mary Alexandra.||Woods, Michael.|
|Bannon, James.||Barrett, Seán.|
|Breen, Pat.||Broughan, Thomas P.|
|Burke, Ulick.||Burton, Joan.|
|Byrne, Catherine.||Carey, Joe.|
|Clune, Deirdre.||Connaughton, Paul.|
|Coonan, Noel J.||Costello, Joe.|
|Coveney, Simon.||Crawford, Seymour.|
|Creed, Michael.||Creighton, Lucinda.|
|Deenihan, Jimmy.||Doyle, Andrew.|
|Durkan, Bernard J.||English, Damien.|
|Enright, Olwyn.||Feighan, Frank.|
|Ferris, Martin.||Flanagan, Charles.|
|Flanagan, Terence.||Hayes, Brian.|
|Hayes, Tom.||Higgins, Michael D.|
|Hogan, Phil.||Lynch, Ciarán.|
|McCormack, Pádraic.||McEntee, Shane.|
|McGinley, Dinny.||McHugh, Joe.|
|McManus, Liz.||Morgan, Arthur.|
|Naughten, Denis.||Noonan, Michael.|
|Ó Snodaigh, Aengus.||O’Donnell, Kieran.|
|O’Dowd, Fergus.||O’Keeffe, Jim.|
|O’Mahony, John.||O’Shea, Brian.|
|O’Sullivan, Jan.||Perry, John.|
|Rabbitte, Pat.||Reilly, James.|
|Ring, Michael.||Shatter, Alan.|
|Sheahan, Tom.||Sheehan, P. J.|
|Sherlock, Seán.||Shortall, Róisín.|
|Stagg, Emmet.||Stanton, David.|
|Timmins, Billy.||Tuffy, Joanna.|
|Upton, Mary.||Varadkar, Leo.|
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