Tuesday, 2 December 2008
Dáil Eireann Debate
Deputy Michael Creed: I am disappointed with and annoyed by the tenor of the Government amendment to the motion. If the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Deputy Smith, wishes to engage in a debate on the CAP health check, the proposals to take an additional 5% in modulation fees from single farm payments or his abject failure, in the aftermath of that health check, to deal with the sheep farmers who have been camped outside his Department for a number of days, I will facilitate him. However, when I table a motion relating to disadvantaged area payments, installation aid and the early retirement scheme, I expect him either to defend the decisions he has made or, preferably, to support my call for the reintroduction of the schemes and payments to which I refer. The lengthy Government amendment to the motion does not once refer to installation aid or the early retirement scheme. This is typical of an Administration that makes decisions over which it is afraid to stand or for which it does not want to be accountable in the House.
Tens of thousands of people are losing their jobs each week. Houses are being repossessed in unprecedented numbers. People’s job prospects have nose-dived and emigration is back on the agenda for many younger individuals. Banks are squeezing the life out of small businesses and multinational companies are relocating to low cost economies.
Fine Gael is only too well aware of the difficulties facing the economy. If confirmation in this regard is needed, people need only consult the Exchequer figures published today. Fine Gael is also aware that difficult choices must be made, that spending must reflect value for money and that waste must be eliminated. For many years, ours has been the lone voice on this side of the House to preach caution and frugality with taxpayers’ money. As a result of Government recklessness, probably best summarised by the Minister for Transport, Deputy Dempsey, describing the €50 million wasted on e-voting machines as “small change”, we will be obliged to cope with the difficulties we now face.
The Government’s ineptitude in managing the economy through the boom years is matched only by its inability to chart a clear course for recovery. Fine Gael has published a clear and alternative budgetary strategy that gives us the scope to reverse the Government’s proposals in respect of agriculture. This strategy includes a pay freeze for those in the public sector who earn over €50,000; reform of the public sector so that the many decent people who work within that sector will have the shackles of bureaucracy removed, thereby allowing them to reach their true potential; a €1.5 billion levy on the banks; and a windfall carbon tax on energy generators. These are but some of the alternatives Fine Gael has put forward.
I recently called for rationalisation of the myriad agencies involved in policing food safety and labelling. The Government’s efforts to secure changes to our labelling legislation at EU level have met with abject failure. At present, officials from the Departments of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and Health and Children, the Health Service Executive and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland and local authority staff are all employed in this area. Savings could be made if this confusion and duplication were tackled and if responsibility for this matter lay solely with the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.
I wish to call for further savings in the area of laboratory services to the State. At present, the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the regional fisheries boards, the Environmental Protection Agency, local authorities and possibly others provide such laboratory services. There should be a single State laboratory service, providing analysis and testing to these various bodies and thereby eliminating the duplication that leads to a substantial cost for the taxpayer. My proposal in this regard does not include hospital-based laboratory services.
Farmers have never shirked their patriotic duty. However, their steadfastness in this regard should not be confused with their being a soft touch in the context of attempts to shore up the position following the Government’s mismanagement of the public finances. No other sector has been asked to accept cuts of the magnitude envisaged in respect of agriculture. It is typical of the budget that the most vulnerable in the farming community are being targeted. I refer here to young farmers in need of assistance, their older counterparts seeking to avail of the early retirement scheme and those eking out a living on marginal land in marginal enterprises. Is this surprising? No. It has all the hallmarks of a Government that tried to take medical cards from those over 70 years of age, to take entitlements from those with disabilities who are over 16 years of age and which denies 12 year old girls life-saving cancer vaccinations. Farmers will shoulder their fair share of the pain — no more and no less.
Those in farming currently face enormous challenges. World Trade Organisation negotiations again loom large on the horizon. Conflicting signals from Europe regarding the true value of food security and the highest standards of production and environmental care make it imperative that we attract the best and brightest into our agriculture industry. In such challenging times, the Government, at the stroke of a pen, suspended the scheme of installation aid. At the same time, this Administration and its agencies are travelling the globe and seeking to attract foreign inward investment at a multiple of the cost per job that obtains in respect of the scheme of installation aid. What signal does this send to the industry and, in particular, to those students who flocked to our agricultural colleges in recent years? The signal it sends is that they are second class citizens and that we value jobs in industry more than those in agriculture. Shame on the Minister for turning his back on our indigenous sector.
I previously referred to the likelihood of a successful legal challenge, based on the principle of legitimate expectation, to the decision to suspend the scheme. I predict that this suspension will be successfully challenged in the courts and will end up costing the State more than the meagre cost — in the region of €4.3 million — of restoring the scheme.
People in farming are crying out for a resolution. Some 8% of farm holdings are owned or managed by those under 35 years of age. There is a definite need for new blood during this most challenging time for agriculture. One of my constituents, an elderly gentleman farmer, died earlier this year. His son, who had completed his green certificate, gave up a well-paid job outside the agriculture sector to take over the family farm. The elderly individual had, before his death and under the farm waste management scheme, embarked on a major development of his property. He had received approval for this and it is hoped the work will be completed before the end of December. Farmers in Northern Ireland will not be obliged to complete works by that date because they obtained an extension. Such an extension was never sought for farmers in this jurisdiction.
Due to the fact that matters relating to the transfer of ownership of the farm holding to which I refer have been delayed by probate, the late farmer’s wife will no longer be entitled to early retirement scheme payments and her son will not receive payments under the scheme of installation aid. This is notwithstanding the fact that much of the investment made in the farm was contingent upon the funding they hoped to secure under these schemes. What does the Minister propose to do in respect of this and the many similar cases that have been documented by the IFA, Macra na Feirme and other organisations, details in respect of which have been presented to the Department?
In conjunction with stamp duty exemption and installation aid, the scheme of early retirement was the third policy initiative to encourage land mobility. This scheme is co-funded by Europe and is, in the case of most farm families, inextricably linked with installation aid. All over the country family farm settlements, retirement plans, financial planning for dependant children — years of careful planning — have been thrown into disarray for the sake of a meagre €9.3 million. What does “suspend” mean? When will the scheme be reinstated? What is to become of those “installed” on their farms in the interim and who may remain so installed for more than 12 months before the scheme is reinstated? Will they be disqualified from benefit? What of those who lose out under the ten year provision of the early retirement scheme? Will they be compensated at the other end by access to the early retirement scheme post-66 years of age? At a time when a cloud of uncertainty hangs over the industry from the World Trade negotiations, and from Europe, it is totally unacceptable to have uncertainty on such critical matters fuelled by one’s own Government.
The suspension of both of these schemes at such a critical juncture in our economic history clearly highlights the Government’s thinking on the capacity of the sector to contribute to revitalising the economy. On the contrary, we in Fine Gael believe that now is the time to realise the true potential of our greatest indigenous industry. Now is the time to recognise that this is an industry for the long haul, contributing both socially and economically, and whose true potential in terms of the food industry has never been truly recognised and exploited. It is a time for investment, research, development and marketing. It is not a time for a Minister in the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to be “doing time”.
Since the budget, the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has repeatedly used the line of scarce resources and of focusing investment on the “productive capacity of the agri-food sector”. It is clear that this statement, in the context of disadvantage area payments, is a watershed in Fianna Fáil policy on agriculture. Through this savage cutback, up to 15% of total income in some cases, and worse when coupled with the slashing of payments under the suckler cow scheme, Fianna Fáil is turning its back on farmers on marginal lands engaged primarily in the sheep and cattle business, which are themselves marginal enterprises.
Beef farmers in the west with suckler cow herds are the suppliers of cattle to those on better lands and involved in the cattle finishing business. This cutback will drive existing part-time farmers out of business and drive those struggling to remain full-time in the business to seek off-farm employment to supplement their incomes. In today’s climate, where are they to go for off-farm incomes? What will happen in reality is that these farmers will turn to the State and the farm assist payment. It would be far better to spend that money under the disadvantaged areas payment scheme. This cutback will affect 35,000 farmers, many of them in the west and many of whom have been Fianna Fáil supporters since the foundation of the State. Fianna Fáil is showing clear signs of a party too long in power, too far removed from reality and too arrogant to listen to ordinary people.
Deputy Michael D’Arcy: I am disappointed with the representation of Members on the other side of the House. I would like to know where are all the Members opposite. Are they hiding or cowering somewhere rather than facing the music?
This is practically the only parliamentary instrument available to the Opposition to apply pressure on the Government. Contrary to the view of some Government backbenchers, people will note how they vote tomorrow evening. I have no doubt about that. I have said previously to the Minister that if he intends to close down agriculture, he should not do so all at once. The Minister should give the primary producers, farmers, a fighting chance of survival until such time as a person with some understanding of the industry comes along.
There are no better farmers worldwide than Irish farmers. I am proud to count myself in that category. It gives me no pleasure to state that the Minister, his officials and personal staff are out of touch with the needs of the industry. Sheep farmers are maintaining a vigil outside the Minister’s office for a reason, namely, the Minister needs to make a decision. I am hopeful he will make the right decision. The German Minister made the decision to support Germany’s dairy farmers immediately following health check. The Minister, if he has the will, can do the same for sheep farmers.
There must be hope for the thousands of farmers following the health check. These released funds must be used to soften the Government’s crazy, ill-informed, poorly judged budget proposals. It appears to me that the Minister, through these cumulative cuts, is seeking to rationalise the sector and to force small-medium producers out of business. Those producers are my friends and my neighbours and the friends and neighbours of my colleagues on this side of the House and of those who sit behind the Minister. Fine Gael will not stand for this.
Funding for the disadvantaged areas scheme is down 20%. These farmers, who work on the most marginal lands in the country, eke out a living in areas where nobody else would, based on their ingrained knowledge of their land and property. What the Minister has done to these farmers is, in agricultural terms, akin to the removal of medical cards from the elderly. I can only describe the suspension of installation aid on retirement as, to use a term previously used, eating one’s own seed potatoes. Young vibrant farmers wishing to enter the profession are being penalised.
Deputy Michael D’Arcy: How much money will it save —€8 million? The farming sector has been the last refuge of construction for months. Every penny being paid out in grant aid was being matched by the farming sector. The cost to the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food of employing staff in this area is €75,000. When will we see genuine reform rather than protectionism within that Department? I am not speaking of a witch hunt of excellent staff, but of officials who seek obscure European directives in order to create work.
The disconnect is apparent. I am speaking not only as a Deputy or a person living in rural Ireland, but as a farmer. There is little engagement, no understanding and no instinct as to what is the correct direction for the agricultural sector. What we need now is a general rather than a corporal taking instruction from his staff.
Deputy Joe McHugh: In the short time available to me, I wish to speak about young farmers, the men and women who entered into farming having taken the courageous step of sacrificing university careers on the basis that there was a future for them in the sector. Many of these young farmers who have taken up the early retirement scheme and are hopeful the installation aid scheme will be reinstated, now feel trapped. There is no incentivisation of farming for young people and there is an absolute logjam in terms of a conduit for farmers to enter the sector. Many young people who are half way through or have only two months remaining of their course in relation to the installation and early retirement schemes have been cast aside. The Minister has an opportunity to address this situation. Even if his colleagues vote against the motion tomorrow night, he can still do something in regard to the course for the installation and early retirement schemes.
Other issues arise in respect of hill-farming. I represent an area with a vast acreage of hill farmers. Currently, the payment under the ewe maintenance scheme is €30 with an extra payment for hill farming. The Minister can do something in this area. These are but two specific issues which I would like the Minister to address.
Farmers have bought into the idea of cross-compliance and believed they would receive extra money for quality stock, be it ewes or animals. That has not happened. The current system is not working. While there is much talk about food security on a global scale, we must examine security at a local level. People are going on solo runs and setting up their own farm enterprises and using them to source food locally.
Deputy Joe McHugh: We need to do that. If we do not, we will be taken over by corporations like Walmart, ASDA and Tesco. One need only drive up the M1 on a Monday morning to see all the Tesco lorries heading North, which cannot cope with the demand for products. People in their purchases are following the cheaper priced products, but we have an opportunity to assist farmers to set up alternative enterprises. There is a need to start sourcing foods locally and to start incentivising farming for the future because the psychology prevailing currently is that young farmers will not enter farming.
I congratulate my colleague, Deputy Creed, on tabling this motion. He emphasised the psychology prevailing in farming among young people. At present there is no motivation to encourage them to take up farming.
Deputy Jimmy Deenihan: All types and aspects of Irish farming seem to be in crisis. Sheep farmers are in serious trouble. That is the reason farmers are protesting outside the Minister’s Department. I understand this matter could be easily solved by a simple announcement from him as to when he will pay the money from Brussels that is there for these farmers.
Milk prices are set to collapse in 2009. The spike is gone and the trough is approaching. Some people predict a price reduction of between of 10 cent and 20 cent a litre in 2009. At present Kerry Co-Operative pays farmers 32 cent per litre, which is far ahead of the price per litre paid by most other co-operatives. It is predicted by those working at the coalface that there will be a reduction in milk prices of 10 cent or 20 cent a litre. If that happens, it will no longer be economic for farmers to engage in milk production — that is the bottom line.
We will be tabling a motion on the fodder crisis after Christmas. That crisis is looming. Farmers had cattle in over the summer and now they do not have enough fodder. In many cases they only have enough until February. We had a fodder crisis a few years ago. In counties like Kerry we were able to bring in beet pulp and straw and use our own maize. This year we produced about 500 hectares of maize in County Kerry, most of which was of poor quality. We face a major fodder crisis. That is the reason it is important to reverse the decision on disadvantaged areas especially, which will cost a county like Kerry, according to the IFA’s estimate, almost €3 million or, an average, €956 per farmer. Therefore, it is a serious crisis. The Minister is probably batting on his own in his Department. He was always very much in support of agriculture. He is probably on his own there in that respect, but he will have to exert all the pressure he can to save Irish farming.
Deputy Dan Neville: I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate. One of the decisions the Minister made on the disadvantaged areas scheme has had a severe impact on large areas of my constituency. The far east and far west of my constituency are disadvantaged and the farming there is marginal. The disadvantaged areas scheme was a vital part of the income of farmers in those areas. Farming activity in those areas has changed dramatically in recent decades. The introduction of the disadvantaged areas scheme was hard fought and successfully campaigned for and it is not acceptable that it is being reduced by 14% or €36.6 million. The Minister will have to revisit that decision and respond to the 40,000 farmers who will be affected by it. These are all farmers who have low incomes and are the most vulnerable in terms of the impact of this cut on their incomes.
I agree with my colleagues regarding the installation aid scheme, one of the schemes that encouraged the continuity of farming within families. Young people taking up farming and the continuity of the farm family unit is an issue that has been raised repeatedly. Hitting farm families by removing the early retirement scheme which enabled farmers to retire and by removing the incentive for young people to take up farming will have a negative impact. It indicates a lack of confidence by the Minister to encourage the next generation to participate in one of our vital industries. To direct cuts in this area is unacceptable.
The issue affecting sheep farmers was raised by my colleague, Deputy Deenihan. I call on the Minister to re-affirm his previous commitment to introduce a sheep maintenance payment from the unused Common Agricultural Policy funds. Sheep farmers feel they have been badly let down by the Government and have lost confidence in it. The Minister can reverse their thinking at a cheap cost. There is anger and frustration among sheep farmers over the Minister’s foot-dragging on this issue. He might when replying announce a sheep maintenance payment of €20 per ewe.
Deputy John O’Mahony: I am glad to put on the record my support for this motion. Having attended many meetings since the announcement of the budget and having listened at length to the cry for help from our farming community, it is imperative that their plight be listened to and acted upon by the Minister. To remove the support systems for our young farmers when they are needed more than ever in the history of the State is an incredible and insensitive decision. The Minister tells us they are merely suspended and will be restored in better times. It is now they are needed.
The young farmer’s installation aid would provide ready-made jobs for our young people in rural areas if they had the support of the €1,500 grant. Not only was the scheme axed but applicants, who had almost finalised the process and fulfilled all the requirements, found themselves dramatically cut off at 5 p.m. on the evening of the budget. We hear every day of jobs being lost throughout the country. Farming is the one industry that has withstood downturn after downturn over the years but it needs the Minister’s help now. The average number of applications for this scheme is 800 per annum at a cost of €7 million or €8,750 per young farmer. The rest of the cost would be met by Europe. I suggest to the Minister that these 800 jobs would come at a much cheaper cost to the country than the millions paid to attract industrial employment.
The axing of the early retirement scheme is also hard to understand when many older farmers wish to pass on their family farm but are now unable to do so with support. It is another attack on older people who have worked tirelessly, all hours of the day, seven days a week for years and do not feel there is any appreciation for their dedication and commitment.
The cuts in the disadvantaged area payment scheme are another body blow to the smallest and weakest farmers. In my constituency of Mayo, farmers on the maximum 45 hectare limit will lose €1,300 per year. It affects 3,163 farmers in Mayo. If that loss is added to the cutback in the suckler cow welfare scheme, the average farmer in Mayo will be at a loss of €2,500. My county has 5,522 applicants for the suckler cow welfare scheme, the highest in the country.
The budget, instead of giving incentives to continue in or take up farming, is discouraging and shutting down farming as a career in rural Ireland. The sheep sector was also promised support and assistance but none has been forthcoming, as we can see from the ongoing protest down the road outside the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food since 26 November.
I join Deputy Neville in asking the Minister to live up to previous commitments he gave when he promised an EU single payment in Tullamore a few weeks ago and announced a €20 per ewe maintenance grant.
I appeal to the Minister to think again about the effects the implementation of these savage cuts will have on farmers. I appeal to each Deputy on the Government side when they come into this House tomorrow night to use this last opportunity to support an industry that has been the bedrock of this country since the foundation of the State.
Deputy Joe Carey: The Minister and the Government make much of the current international economic situation. We have had the call for patriotic duty and the standing ovation, but if there is one truism about this budget, it is that the Taoiseach, his Minister for Finance and the Government have made a complete hash of things. They have failed to deal with the fundamentals that would position the economy on a sounder footing. The rush to budget action in October has been shown up as ill conceived. One would be hard pressed to find nastier cuts than those to the young farmer’s installation aid scheme and the early retirement scheme. I remind the House, that the Government was not tardy in providing full pension cover for a colleague when the issue had apparently been overlooked. How can a Government have the authority to then say to people we are all in this together when it acts in a such a manner?
I understand approximately 500 applicants are caught out by the suspension of the young farmer’s installation aid scheme. I have received a number of representations on the matter. One young Clare farmer in particular comes to mind. The young man to whom I refer has spent the past 12 months trying to transfer his land. Through no fault of his own he found it difficult to find land to rent in his area. He managed to do that on the Sunday before the budget and had made an appointment to meet with his local agricultural adviser for the following Friday. The case involved both installation aid and early retirement. He learned on budget day that the early retirement and installation aid schemes were to be suspended by midnight that night. There was no time for those involved in the process to conclude their business. The case to which I refer is replicated around the country.
For the first time in years agricultural colleges have increased their numbers and then the Government removed the only incentive there is to keep people on the land. If it is good enough for a former Minister to receive retrospective attention to his pension details, then it should be good enough for everybody else.
Deputy Joe Carey: Last Sunday in Ennis, 7,500 people took part in a demonstration against the cuts. Those are honest, hardworking people that were never caught up in the madness that was the Celtic tiger yet the Government is doing a slash and burn on their futures. The proposed changes in the disadvantaged area payment will hit 2,406 farmers in County Clare. In targeting the disadvantaged payment the Minister is hitting the weakest section, those with the worst land, who badly need the money that he is taking out of their pockets. I plead with the Minister to go back to the drawing board. He is in denial. His assault on the farming communities, especially in the west, must stop.
Deputy James Bannon: I thank my colleague, Deputy Creed, for tabling this important motion, which was necessitated by the extraordinary cutbacks imposed on the already hard hit agricultural sector. The Minister’s actions are set to impact adversely on the viability and sustainability of rural Ireland.
Shame on the Minister for the way he has treated farmers, especially those in the sheep sector who have been protesting outside the Department for the past week for their due entitlements that were promised by the Government. Strangely, but perhaps it was indicative of his state of mind in October last when announcing the budget cutbacks, the Minister described them as “strategic and targeted”. If by that he meant measures aimed at a sector that his predecessor brought to its knees and targeted at the least able to sustain the attack, I suppose he was right.
I hope the Minister had an extremely uncomfortable and embarrassing meeting with the EU Council of Ministers the week before last when rural development and investment aid for young farmers was under discussion. Young farmers in other states will qualify for a boost of €70,000 while aspiring Irish farmers will have to make do without even the Minister’s Scrooge-like version, a once-off payment of €15,000 for installation aid, as that has been axed in budget 2009. In his wisdom the Minister proclaimed that our young farmers could do without it.
At a time when it is imperative to attract young, well-educated and highly trained farmers into the industry, the Minister has shamefully and short-sightedly cut this important aid package. Providing the best possible education and set up opportunities for young farmers is the key to giving agriculture a competitive edge. I call on the Minister to reverse his cynical decision to penalise those young people who would do so much to inject new ideas and enthusiasm into a sector that is demoralised by Government mismanagement of hard-pressed taxpayers’ money and hard hit by bureaucracy and red tape. The knock-on effect of the cutback will be increased emigration from rural areas, resulting in a return to the days when parishes were decimated and could not field a football team. Instead of looking to modernise the farming sector the Minister is dragging it backwards to the 1980s.
I represent the constituency of Longford-Westmeath, which is part of the disadvantaged Border, midlands and west, BMW, region and I am shocked by the cutbacks to the disadvantaged areas scheme. The loss of €1,055 as a result of the budget may be small change to the Minister but it is the difference for many in the farming sector between survival or being driven off the land.
I call on the Minister to reverse his decision. It is within his gift to do that and to reallocate the increased funds diverted from the single farm payments in order to restore installation aid, the farm retirement scheme and the disadvantaged areas scheme.
The Minister and I were elected to the Dáil 16 years ago last week. Let us consider what has happened in the meantime. Ordinary family pig farms are closed. Mushroom units across our constituency are closed. Poultry units are under pressure from imports and poultry production and processing are under constant pressure from scrutiny that no other sector has to endure. Those who send their product to this country do not even have to label it.
The one thing both the Minister and I fought for was to have the complete constituency of Cavan-Monaghan declared as severely disadvantaged. That took some of us a long time yet the Minister curtailed the benefit from disadvantaged area status that goes to those counties. He must be proud. Let us think of the message it is sending to Brussels that the Minister would use the first opportunity to disadvantage those disadvantaged farm families at a time when we are trying to get funding from them.
The Minister also cut installation aid and the farm retirement scheme, the two methods that allowed farmers to transfer farms to young farmers. I accept that in recent years those schemes may not have been as important and the numbers may have been low because there were opportunities outside farming, but that is no longer the case and more students than ever are in agricultural colleges because they thought they had a future in farming yet the Minister took that away from them.
I listened with interest to the Minister on local and national radio trying to defend the indefensible. One of the points he consistently made was that great grants were given for the farm waste management scheme. When that scheme was introduced I asked his predecessor whether she had provided sufficient funding and she made a joke of it and said that money was not a problem. Because of the money the Government has wasted in all kinds of areas we have gone from a €6 billion surplus two years ago to a deficit of almost €15 billion. In spite of this, the Minister is trying to blame the farmers who participated in the waste management scheme, as they were forced to do, for using up the money and he is asking disadvantaged farmers to foot the bill.
It is not the Government that is paying for the farm waste management scheme but farmers in disadvantaged areas. They are being asked to make up the shortfall in the budget because the Government has squandered the money. Shame on the Minister. I worked with him to have the disadvantaged areas scheme apply to Cavan-Monaghan, yet he is the very person who is removing that benefit from the farmers of that region.
It is now almost two months since the budget. There have been some very significant developments since then and more are on the horizon that will have an impact on Irish agriculture. These developments present both challenges and, more important, opportunities for Irish farmers and the agrifood sector. The sector operates in a dynamic, ever-evolving environment that requires flexibility and an ability to adapt to change.
Significantly, the Council of Agriculture Ministers recently concluded negotiations on the CAP health check, which represents a very successful outcome for Irish farmers. Only last Friday, I was in Brussels for a wide-ranging discussion on the future of the CAP after 2013 and I emphasised my strongly held view that there will be a continuing need for an active and appropriately resourced European agricultural policy to achieve the European Union’s policy objectives for the agriculture and food sector and to help our farmers and processors to adapt to the new and emerging challenges.
The circumstances that applied at the time of the budget demanded that the Government address the sharp deterioration in the public finances and we have chosen a direction that is not based on soft options, quick fixes or political expediency. The choices we make will determine whether we can maintain, to the greatest possible extent, the economic progress we have achieved in the last decade.
There were times in the post-budget debate when some people seem to have forgotten the basic fiscal fundamentals. The economic outlook is such that we have less money to meet growing public expenditure demands. We cannot borrow our way out of trouble or return to the days of punitive tax rates that stifled economic growth and resulted in high unemployment. Our day-to-day expenditure next year will exceed revenue by €4.7 billion, equating to over €1,000 for every man, woman and child. We cannot and will not return to the days of the budgetary management we experienced in the 1980s. Given the resources available to me, I had to make choices and identify priorities for 2009.
Deputy Brendan Smith: This meant having to make difficult decisions but I am satisfied that, in the circumstances, I made the right ones. Given some of the reactions to the budget measures I announced, one would be easily excused for forgetting that my Department will be spending €3.26 billion in support of Irish agriculture, fisheries, food and forestry in 2009. This expenditure ensures that record funding of €355 million will be provided for REPS, which represents a 7% increase in overall funding and a 17% increase in payments under REPS 4. Less than four years ago, the yearly allocation for REPS was €209 million.
Next year’s level of spending will ensure that the commitment, entered into in the partnership agreement, to provide €250 million over five years for the suckler cow welfare scheme will be honoured in full. To suggest anything other than that this commitment is being honoured is inaccurate.
Earlier this week, I read claims that 12,000 farmers will take a hit on their suckler payment. I do not accept this as the suckler payment is a new stream of income for farmers, the first payments only having been made in the past few weeks. Some €33 million will have been paid before the end of this month and a further €44 million will be paid in the early months of 2009.
Regrettably, it is the case that I had to reduce expenditure on the disadvantaged areas scheme, but I do not accept some claims about the extent of the impact of that decision on overall farm incomes. I remind the House that the Irish disadvantaged areas scheme is one of the best-resourced in the European Union. Its payments comprise national and EU funding. Two thirds of disadvantaged area payment recipients will experience no reduction in their payments. I consciously protected the smaller-scale farmers by ensuring that no farmer with less than 34 hectares, or 84 acres, will have his payment reduced.
Deputy Brendan Smith: The average holding is 31 hectares. Given the contribution of the disadvantaged area payments to overall farm incomes, I cannot accept that the reduced expenditure in 2009 will have the impact some Members claimed it will.
The decision I took on the early retirement and installation aid schemes was to suspend temporarily entry thereto for new entrants and not to abolish them, as some Members have continued to allege. Despite the suspension of the schemes, the Department will still pay €48 million in early retirement pensions in 2009 and €9 million to 600 installation aid applicants. A number of important tax reliefs of specific benefit to the agriculture sector——
Deputy Brendan Smith: ——some of major importance to new entrants and which are worth €65 million per annum, were extended in the budget and the Finance Bill. I have made it clear repeatedly, in response to representations from farm organisations and at meetings therewith and with public representatives, that I intend to revisit the decision to suspend entry to these schemes as soon as budgetary circumstances permit.
The outcome of the health check initiative was particularly satisfactory from an Irish point of view and included a number of notable achievements for Ireland. As with all negotiations of this nature, we did not get everything we would have liked but we did achieve an outcome that will be worth some €170 million to Irish farmers over the next five years. We also ensured a soft landing for the Irish dairy sector——
The outcome in regard to milk quotas will result in a quota increase equivalent to 500 million litres by 2014, by comparison with the figure for 2007. Based on existing milk prices, the value of these production rights amount to some €100 million.
Deputy Brendan Smith: Despite the current price for milk, I am confident that the long-term outlook is positive and that the Irish dairy sector is well equipped to take advantage of the opportunities that will result from growing prosperity in developing countries as well as increasing population trends. The world’s population is expected to grow by almost 800 million over the next decade.
Deputy Brendan Smith: Deputy Deenihan made his point on the particular pressures on the dairy sector sensibly. He addressed the issue, unlike some of the commentators I have heard. Unfortunately, price volatility now seems——
The Government is also investing significantly in the dairy processing industry, through the dairy investment fund, to ensure it will have the capacity to process the increased yield I believe dairy farmers will be more than capable of producing.
I had identified the maintenance of market supports as a particular priority given Ireland’s seasonal pattern of production. Despite significant opposition, I secured agreement to the retention of intervention for butter and skimmed milk powder, without losing the compulsory purchase at the intervention price of the first 30,000 tonnes of butter and 109,000 tonnes of skimmed milk powder. Coupled with the retention of private storage aid for butter, in its current form, this was a very significant achievement.
A further priority of mine was to secure national discretion for the operation of specific supports funded from the single payment ceiling. I am particularly pleased that we succeeded in this aim. I was one of the first to press for this initiative and the deal agreed means that a minimum of around €23 million in new money will be available to Irish farmers from 2010, with a much smaller amount available in 2009. I invited the farm organisations to meet me later this month to discuss how best this new money can be used and a date for that meeting has now been fixed. Although I think it important to get the views of the stakeholders, I do not intend this to be a lengthy process and I expect to be in a position to come to an early decision following the forthcoming meeting.
I have previously expressed my concern for the sheep sector in particular and have repeatedly acknowledged that this sector needs support, given its importance. I am particularly conscious of the decline in production in recent years and of decline in demand this year. My position in respect of the sheep sector has been consistent and remains exactly as I outlined it at a European sheep conference last September and, more recently, when I addressed the sheep farmers conference organised by the Irish Farmers Association in Tullamore. On that occasion I said I wanted to ensure that the changes in the health check initiative will open the possibility for some useful action in the sheep sector.
Deputy Brendan Smith: Despite claims to the contrary, I have not backed away from any commitments to sheep farmers. The sector remains a priority and is one that needs assistance. I have no doubt that proposals to support the sheep sector will form a central part of the discussions to which I have invited the farm organisations later this month. I look forward to that dialogue and to constructive discussion and will give full consideration to the proposals made, including those that have been publicly articulated recently.
Having concluded agreement on the Common Agricultural Policy health check, the Agriculture Council met only last Friday for an initial consideration of the CAP post-2013. I restated my firm conviction that Europe needs a strong agricultural production base and outlined my concerns that any reduction in food production in the EU would be taken up elsewhere where less efficient production systems exist. This would result in a heavier carbon footprint. I emphasised the continuing need for an active and appropriately resourced European agricultural policy to achieve the EU’s objectives for the agrifood sector and to help Irish and European farmers and processors adapt to the new and demanding emerging challenges. I also stressed the need for effective rural development programmes which play a key role in regional development and in the protection of the environment and stated the critical importance of having equivalent standards for imports from outside the EU.
Improved animal health standards continue to be very important generally and, more specifically, for farmers and the livestock industry. Consequently, I am very pleased to be in a position to say that considerable progress has been made in dealing with two important diseases that have had a significant impact here in the last decade, namely, BSE and brucellosis.
BSE has been a particular priority of mine and also of my predecessor, the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Mary Coughlan. We wished to have the age for BSE testing raised significantly. I have long been of the view that the current testing requirements, which are fixed at EU level, are excessive. One of the first things I did when I became Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was to write to the EU Commissioner to press her to increase the age for BSE testing as a priority matter. I am very pleased that the Commission has now agreed to raise the age for testing to 48 months from early next year.  The new arrangements will mean 400,000 fewer BSE tests on cattle, resulting in a significant saving, a minimum of €8m a year, for farmers and the industry.
Excellent progress has been made on brucellosis in recent years. From a situation where recently we had more than 1,000 herd breakdowns in a single year, there have been no confirmed outbreaks of brucellosis in Ireland since April 2006. This is most welcome progress and it enables me to apply to the EU for an official brucellosis-free status for Ireland early next year. The progress made is due to a number of factors, not least the full co-operation of all stakeholders with the eradication regime. This included comprehensive testing, depopulation and other arrangements.
Deputy Brendan Smith: Securing an official brucellosis-free status for Ireland will enable me to reduce some of the control elements of the eradication programme. This will bring consequential benefits for farmers, particularly with regard to trade. In addition, it will be possible to bring about a gradual reduction in the level of testing that will, over time, lead to reduced testing and lower costs for farmers.
However, we must take a cautious approach in view of the current disease situation north of the Border. Accordingly, I envisage a controlled reduction in the programme over a period of years, based on risk assessment, following the achievement of disease-free status for the country. My Department is engaged in consultations with the farm organisations and other stakeholders with a view to finalising the scaling down of the programme over the next few years. I believe that achieving official brucellosis-free status would be a landmark in the history of disease eradication in Ireland and I am grateful for the co-operation of all of the parties who have contributed to the success to date.
I was particularly pleased that I was in a position last week to announce interim arrangements to facilitate progress on the proposed industry-led herd health initiative. Among other things, this involves the establishment of a dedicated, industry-led, national co-ordinating body to be known as Animal Health Ireland and it delivers on another of the important commitments in the programme for Government. It is envisaged that this body will operate as a partnership between industry, service providers and Government. It will have two broad aims. The first is to determine and, on an industry-wide basis, obtain agreement on a range of animal health interventions capable of enhancing on-farm productivity and the competitiveness of the livestock industry in international markets. The second is to develop and co-ordinate the national infrastructure that will be needed to enable industry at all levels to take appropriate and effective action. I look forward to the co-operation of all the stakeholders with regard to that particular initiative.
My Department will spend €3.26 billion next year in support of a sector which, according to the most recent figures, accounts for almost 10% of the country’s exports and over 8% of employment. In 2007, Irish agrifood and drink exports were worth an estimated €9.2 billion.
Budget 2009 has seen a modest reduction in expenditure and I have had to make difficult choices. Those I made are aimed at focusing available resources on the measures that will allow us to maintain and grow the productive capacity of the agrifood sector. The sector operates in a dynamic global environment. To emphasise the international influences on the sector, we need only reflect on the developments since the budget, including a very favourable outcome to the recent CAP health check and the opening discussions with regard to the post-2013 situation. I have no doubt about the need to maintain a strong agricultural production base in Europe and that will be my position and that of the Government throughout future negotiations.
The progress made in respect of animal health this decade is now resulting in genuine benefits for farmers. This is a tribute to the commitment of farmers to improving the health status of the Irish herd. It recognises the disruptive and costly nature of the eradication arrangements on farmers and on my Department in terms of compensation and the substantial additional costs incurred in testing and the other economic losses that arise from the premature removal of infected cattle.
Irish agriculture is facing challenges but is also being presented with opportunities. I am confident of the industry’s capacity to meet those challenges and to exploit the opportunities and the sector can be assured of the Government’s commitment and support and that we will ensure that it meets its full potential over the next few years.
Deputy Niall Collins: I second the Government’s amendment to the motion as set out by the Minister. I welcome the opportunity to partake in the debate as a Deputy representing a rural constituency, along with my colleague on the Fine Gael side, Deputy Dan Neville.
I acknowledge the considerable contribution to the economy made by the 132,000 farm families, on an ongoing basis, and also that of the many thousands of other people who derive their livelihood indirectly from the agri-sector. Last week we spoke about small and medium enterprises and in that vein we emphasised the role of banking. Banking has significant input into farming because farm families run businesses. I reiterate the call I made last week to the banking sector to adopt a more flexible approach to farm enterprises. I welcome the announcement by Bank of Ireland of a €250 million fund and the further announcement by Royal Bank of Scotland that it will allocate €1 billion to make credit available. This credit must be extended to the farm sector. I call again on the banks to produce a strategy statement to deal with the agricultural sector.
Recently I met a number of representatives from the IFA and the ICMSA as many other Deputies must do. I asked them how, apart from all the other issues, we can help them on a day to day basis. A common theme that emerged concerned how farmers can realise their assets through the sale of sites. All Deputies from different parties can bring this to fruition. Local authorities have tended to limit the number of sites being sold and put on the open market, particularly those owned by farmers. Dealing with this issue would allow farm families to realise their assets and would also provide the kick-start to the construction sector that is so badly needed.
Deputy Niall Collins: Section 47 of the Planning and Development Act 2000 provides that a planning authority may enter into an agreement with any person for the purposes of restricting or regulating development and the use of land permanently for a specified period. Certain arrangements under this section, more commonly known as sterilisation agreements, have been used on occasion by planning authorities to regulate development in rural areas. In areas where significant levels of rural housing development have taken place on the edges of cities and towns, such areas may tend to become over-developed.
Deputy Niall Collins: With respect, perhaps I can finish the point I am making. As regards the motion before the House, we are having a debate about the sustainability of farm enterprises and I am making a point in that context. I have asked members of farm organisations how we may assist in all types of areas. I am making the point that has been made to me; am I allowed to do that?
Deputy Niall Collins: I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle. However, the inflexible nature of such agreements limits their usefulness beyond highly exceptional circumstances. I will conclude on the point that all local authorities as well as the IFA and the ICMSA are telling me there is an overuse of sterilisation where farm family lands are being exempted from development indefinitely, and——
Deputy Margaret Conlon: Tá a lán rudaí soiléir ag an am seo. Tá geilleagar na tíre ag dul in olcas agus tá orainn íobairtíá dhéanamh ar mhaithe lenár dtír. Tá sé ráite go gcuirfidh na ciorraithe isteach go mór ar na feirmeoirí. Ach táimid i gcruachás, teastaíonn cabhair uainn agus mar sin, tarraingímis le chéile.
With limited resources, very tough and difficult choices have to be make. The early retirement and installation aid schemes have been temporarily suspended to new entrants, not abolished. The Minister has stated that this position will be reviewed as soon as the current budgetary constraints permit.
Deputy Margaret Conlon: Some €48 million is being paid in farmers’ pensions in 2009 and €9 million will be paid in installation aid grants. The overall funding for the disadvantaged area scheme will be reduced by 14% to €220 million in 2009. The Minister has targeted this reduced funding to ensure that 67,000 of the 102,000 participants do not experience any reduction in their payments. There will also be no reduction in payments on holdings of up to 34 hectares, a conscious decision taken by the Minister to protect the smaller scale farmers.
Deputy Margaret Conlon: By the end of 2009, some €2.3 billion will have been paid to tens of thousands of Irish farmers in disadvantaged area payments this decade. This is a concrete fact and a reality of the delivery of Fianna Fáil in government to the farmers of Ireland.
Deputy Margaret Conlon: Deputy Crawford has had his opportunity, and I did not interrupt Deputy Bannon. The budget and Finance Bill extend a number of tax reliefs that are of specific benefit to the agri-sector, worth €65 million per annum. I am delighted that the REP scheme will continue in order to ensure it can continue to accommodate farmers wishing to join in 2009. The REPS allocation for 2009 will be increased to €355 million. In the partnership talks, the Government made a commitment to spend €250 million on the suckler welfare scheme. This, I am assured, by the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, will be fully honoured, a point which the Department reiterated in the print media recently. It is incorrect to state that this is being lost to farmers as it is a new stream of income.
My Cavan-Monaghan constituency colleague, the Minister, Deputy Brendan Smith, is presented with most challenging times. The public financial situation had obvious adverse implications for expenditure across all Departments and difficult decisions had to be made in the best interests of the country. While some of these may seem unpalatable now, neither were they popular in the 1987 budget. However, a tough budget is needed to realign Ireland’s path into the future if we are to find a solution after all the international financial and banking turmoil has settled, which could take longer than many had envisaged.
The developments post-budget 2009 present challenges and, more important, opportunities, for farmers and the agri-food sector. The sector operates in a dynamic, fluid environment that requires a flexibility, willingness and capability to change. The Government is also investing significantly in the dairy processing industry, through the dairy investment fund, to ensure it has the capacity and ability to process the increased production I believe dairy farmers will be more than capable of producing.
In conclusion, the Minister, Deputy Smith, posed the question tonight as to whether anybody would have thanked us had we eschewed our duty and abandoned long-term responsibility in favour of short-term populism.
Deputy Margaret Conlon: In five or ten years’ time, people will understand why we did this and will respect us for framing this very unpopular budget. In 2009, national expenditure will exceed revenue by €4.7 billion. This is more than €1,000 for every man, woman and child in this country. Finally, if we return to the days of crazy budgetary management, what will our children think of how we performed as legislators at this time? Should we have taken the easy option or the tough unpopular ones? The Minister has explicitly stated that when the current financial situation improves, the Government will re-examine the early retirement and installation aid schemes — and I intend working with my colleague to ensure that pledge is honoured.
Deputy Johnny Brady: Before I start, I should like to withdraw something I said to Deputy Bannon. I told him to shut up and it is not my style to use that language. I want to tell Deputy Bannon that I am very sorry. These have been interesting times for the agricultural sector. The sector, like other areas, felt the chill wind of the global economic downturn. There was some good news with the recent CAP health check, which concluded in Brussels a few weeks ago. This represents a very good outcome for the Irish agricultural sector and will deliver €175 million over the next five years. Milk quotas will be abolished in seven years’ time. A 2% quota increase in 2008, a 3% increase in 2009 and a 1% increase in each of the years from 2010-13 will cumulatively amount to an increase of 9% by 2014. This is equivalent to an additional 500 million litres as compared to 2007. Based on existing milk price values, these production rights amount to about €100 million. I should like to compliment my friend and great colleague, the Minister, Deputy Brendan Smith, on his negotiating skills in that particular deal.
Agriculture has always had a major role to play in our world, and it will continue to do so. It has a major part to play in issues such as food security, energy security and climate change. There are still more challenges to come, but we can meet them if we work together. Ireland has always had a dynamic agricultural sector, with deep-rooted attachment to the land. We need to maintain this link with the land and ensure we are in a position to take advantage of any upturn in the economy. We are living in unprecedentedly difficult economic times. There is financial turmoil across the globe and we are facing the most severe economic depression since the period of the Wall Street crash.
The current economic situation is extremely difficult and with massive tax shortfalls it is necessary to make significant reductions in public spending. Very difficult choices had to be made within each Department. As regards the disadvantaged area payments, it should be noted that more than 65,000 out of the 102,000 recipients will experience no reduction in their payments. Participants with average sized holdings of 31 hectares will not be affected by the decision. However, again I know the Minister wants to look at the situation as soon as possible and reinstate it.
For the sucker welfare scheme, the commitment in the Towards 2016 partnership agreement, to provide €250 million in funding, is being honoured in full. Regarding early retirement and installation aid, these schemes have been temporarily suspended for new entrants. However, this situation will be reviewed, and I know the schemes are very important for the young and the elderly. The Minister is keeping the situation under review, and hopefully the schemes will be reinstated. We can all recall 1995, when the Proinsias De Rossa-led Democratic Left Party in government abolished the early retirement scheme and we came back into power and reinstated it. A number of significant tax reliefs, worth €65 million annually, were extended in the budget, some of which will be of particular benefit to young farmers, notably, the young trained farmer stamp duty relief worth €53 million.
With regard to farm waste management, there is no funding shortfall and works completed by 31 December will be paid. There will be taxpayer investment of at least €615 million over three years. The farm improvement scheme will be funded and the €79 million for farm investment will be honoured in full. Total expenditure for agriculture, fisheries, food and forestry sectors in 2009 will be worth €3.2 billion, a significant sum.
Deputy Seán Sherlock: I wish to begin by replying to Deputy Collins. Not every farmer in the country wants to build houses or become a developer on his or her land-holding. Those people are in the minority. I remind the Deputy that the arrangements he spoke about are only guidelines and that the county development plans of each county take precedence over those guidelines. In response to Deputy Brady, the Government in question was not a Democratic Left-led Government. There were three parties in that particular arrangement.
I represent a party that traditionally would not be aligned to the farming community. However, in terms of my wholehearted supported for this motion, I can give an analysis that is unfettered and devoid of political expediency. I do not intend to be politically expedient tonight, but to speak of the facts.
We reside in a European Union where UK young farmers represent 5.6% of the total farming workforce and Irish young farmers represent 10.5%. These percentages are from a report from the European Parliament issued in May 2008 and represent farmers under the age of 35. If we are to be innovative in the manner we create jobs during the current downturn, we need to create incentives. The only way to create incentives is to ensure that coterie of the population — the under 35s — who are interested in becoming involved in agriculture get the financial incentives to do so.
There is an economic rationale for ensuring the early retirement scheme and installation aid scheme for young farmers are maintained. By allowing these new farmers to enter the sector, which is a productive sector and generates revenues of €8.6 billion per annum in food and drink exports about which the Minister spoke, we encourage innovation. However, by culling the scheme, we create a disincentive. At a time when, for example, FÁS has a budget of €1.05 billion, we have spent €48.4 billion on the indigenous sector through Enterprise Ireland and we are spending €90 million on capital expenditure for IDA Ireland, all of which is for job creation, there is a ratio of that kind of investment for every job created. Therefore, every job created costs the economy a certain amount, a specific figure which I have not been able to ascertain.
Therefore, by creating, allowing or facilitating the installation aid scheme and by investing in each and every one of the young farmers new to the sector, the Government is progressing the sector and creating a job, or in economic terms a multiplier effect, that ensures the rural economy will continue to be maintained. This is a rational, objective and cold view that is devoid of any political expediency.
These schemes are essential if we are to maintain our comparative advantage within the rural economy. If the Government continues to remove funds from the rural economy, the rural depopulation we have witnessed, the lack of proper infrastructure and the lack of expenditure within that economy will have a further detrimental effect. Any person who avails of a scheme such as the young farmer installation aid does not spend the money in Santa Ponsa, but invests it in his or her own farmholding, generally in a way that is innovative and will increase the yield or return to that farm.
To return to the demographics, the bulk of farmers are within a certain age group and there is a certain wisdom that comes with that intergenerational solidarity that occurs within the sector. However, with every new influx of blood, there comes new ideas. We talk about issues such as carbon off-setting and the possibility of micro-energy production, but if we talk about innovative ideas, we need to ensure the incentive is there to allow young people come into the sector. What the Minister has done by culling the scheme is to disincentivise them and that is not the way to go.
I represent a rural-urban mix of a constituency. My constituency traditionally had large agribusiness interests, but these have declined over a period of time. There is now a real opportunity for people of my generation to come into the sector. These people will have a farming mix that will involve energy creation and a different type of product mix that will yield benefits to the country in the long run. Therefore, I urge the Minister to rethink the changes.
Deputy Martin Ferris: I thank the Labour Party for allowing me ten minutes to speak. I fully support this motion. I go further and say that all of the budget cutbacks in the agriculture sector should be reversed. This would include not just the three schemes referred to, but also the suckler welfare scheme where payments are to be halved and the cuts made in Teagasc and the overall allocation for research and development.
Within days of the budget, I was contacted by a group of 27 young farmers in Kerry who, because of the closure of the installation aid scheme, were concerned they would not be eligible for the scheme. Some 23 of them had completed their training course in July this year. They received their FETAC certificates just days after the budget, despite the fact they had a letter from Teagasc telling them they would have their certificates within six weeks. The anomaly for these young people is that the delay in awarding them their certificates means their prospects are affected by the budget. However, because of the closure of the scheme they are no longer eligible and this represents a severe and in some cases fatal blow to their hopes and prospects of beginning to farm. I am reliably informed that 500 other young farmers in the State are in a similar predicament. The Minister has not clarified the position in respect of these young farmers and this must be done. They are entitled to the installation aid and should receive it.
As I stated at the time, this represents not only a betrayal of those young farmers who entered into training courses to prepare themselves to take over the running of a farm, it also represents a cynical vote of no confidence in rural Ireland. The stark fact is that in the absence of schemes such as installation aid, which often can be the difference between a young farmer being able to get off the ground or otherwise, many of the 23 young farmers to which I referred from my native county, as well as the 500 in other counties, will not only not proceed with their plans, but may well in the current climate also be unable to secure employment elsewhere and undoubtedly a significant proportion of them will be forced to emigrate.
Is that the sort of message the Government wishes to send to young people in rural Ireland? Is that all it has to offer after decades and more of economic growth? Once matters begin to take a turn for the worse, young people in rural communities are expected to do what generations of young people in rural Ireland have done, which is to turn their back on their traditional way of life and seek work on building sites and bars in London, New York and elsewhere. That is, if such work is available. In present circumstances, given the downturn in the economic outlook of the traditional countries to which young people leaving rural Ireland emigrated, this opportunity no longer is open to them.
The same applies to the early retirement scheme. Together with others, I have been meeting people and getting representations from those who felt badly done by the original scheme or rather, how their situation was affected in the wake of the CAP reform and the impact it had on them. Closing this scheme will, in the same manner as getting rid of installation aid, have both a direct impact on farmers’ incomes and a negative impact on the transfer of land to younger farmers and on the future of the sector with regard to land ownership, farm innovation and consolidation. I cannot understand how the Government would take such an irresponsible approach, given it is trying to encourage young people to stay on the land and to encourage elderly people to transfer the land to the young in order that they can continue in a traditional way of life. I cannot understand the reason a government would take such a cynical decision and effectively wipe out both sectors.
It is clear from the representations I have received since the budget both from my native county and around the country that there is huge anger and disappointment with the manner in which farming and the rural economy is being treated. This is being reflected at present in the meetings and lobbies being held around the country, including a large turnout in Ennis last Sunday, where up to 10,000 farmers and their families protested. I was proud and honoured to attend last Sunday’s meeting.
While the entire sector is affected, the impact the cuts will have on smaller farmers is particularly noticeable, as is the manner in which this is adding to an already considerable level of pessimism among small to medium farmers about the future. Unfortunately this ties in with the feedback I have received while compiling a report for the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Fisheries and Food on the current state of and future prospects for, farming and fishing in the western counties. While the report focuses on west Cork, Kerry, west Limerick, Clare, Galway, Roscommon, Mayo, Sligo, Leitrim and Donegal, it is of relevance to the entire country and particularly to farmers at the lower end of the income scale. I am pleased to note that while compiling this report, I received great support from all the farming bodies and from the affected people living in rural Ireland.
One of the most striking findings from a survey that was conducted among farmers in those counties during the summer was the level of pessimism. Of the more than 200 farmers who took part in the survey at marts, only 23% thought their situation had improved since the introduction of the single farm payment, a further 60% believed their situation had worsened, while the remainder felt there had been no change. That is an extremely worrying statistic and one that undermines much of the optimism that surrounded the introduction of decoupling as part of the 2003 CAP reform. One of the reasons clearly is that the value of the single farm payment is declining by approximately 12%. This is because it is not index-linked and, in some cases, through modulation, even though farmers on the lowest payments are exempt. Another significant finding from the survey was that 84% believed that farmers in the west were disadvantaged in comparison with those in other parts of the country. While some of this was attributed to the quality of land, others specifically referred to what they believed was an official neglect of the west, not simply in farming, and that the overall treatment of the rural economy was badly affecting farming and increasing the difficulties of attaining viability.
Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the survey, however, was that only a minority of those questioned believed that they or a family member still would be involved in farming in ten years’ time. A total of 42% believed they would, 38% believed they would not and the remainder were unsure. This suggests an even greater proportion of current farm households will be gone within the next decade than even the 23% decline by 2015 that was forecast in the Agri-Vision report. It may, however, be a more realistic picture, given the way western farmers view their prospects and in the light of the current undermining of the sector, as represented most recently by the budget cuts. Indeed were this survey to be conducted now, I am sure the negative responses would be far greater than they were in the summer. This is my point. The Government’s actions regarding rural Ireland and the farming community in particular have made the position far worse than it was previously and have created far more pessimism in that sector.
This is the reason it is crucial for the Government to take urgent measures to encourage what remains the largest single indigenous provider of livelihoods in this State, which has a major multiplier effect throughout the rest of the rural economy in stimulating activity in other areas such as construction. However, just as investment in farming has a positive impact, so too will the withdrawal of investment and this already is apparent in the building sector in many areas. This is particularly true given the failure to extend the waste management scheme and to permit farmers to complete planned on-farm works that would have sustained many jobs over the short term in this difficult period.
The Government’s actions have been contradicted by the commendable actions of Michelle Gildernew in the Six Counties. The Executive there has extended the scheme for three months, where the construction of farm waste management is perceived to be credible and verifiable. It is prepared to pay the remainder out of its own Exchequer, which is highly commendable.
The farming sector on this island and in the Twenty-six Counties in particular, is in need of support. It does not need to be penalised further because of the neglect of Governments present and past. It also constitutes an attack on the most vulnerable sectors of our society. The budget attacked the elderly, the youth and the most vulnerable sector within the farming community. The budget cuts must be reversed in their entirety as far as the farming sector is concerned. It is ironic that while this House passed and will support the bail-out of the banks, all the Government is doing is to penalise those who built this State and this economy, namely, the farming community and our rural communities. This is what is taking place and that is the reason it must be reversed.
When I spoke at Ennis last Sunday, I stated this was a human rights issue. It is a human rights issue whereby people living on the margins on the western coast, as well as those most affected in the farming communities, are struggling to survive.
Deputy Martin Ferris: They are proud dedicated people who are committed to their communities, families and traditional way of life. However, all the Government can do is penalise them and try to drive them off the land. This is what is taking place. It is a deliberate attempt made in this House to clear off the small and medium sized farms. This must be reversed and Members must stand together. I appeal to the backbenchers on the Government side of the House, to those are listening or who are meeting their constituents on a daily basis. Throughout the rural communities on this island, Deputies were elected democratically to this House but were not elected to penalise or to cut back farm income. They were not elected to attack the most vulnerable in our communities. They were elected democratically to do the right thing, the just thing. They are not doing that and I make a final appeal to the Minister to do the right thing. Those who do not stand with the Government on that side of the House should let their voices be heard——
Deputy Martin Ferris: It is time the Government stood up for the people of this country who are most in need. It is time they stood by the people who put them there. This budget, and, in particular, what the Minister is doing to the farming community, is not the democratic wish of our communities or society. The Minister was not elected for that and neither was the Government.
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