Wednesday, 20 November 2002
Seanad Eireann Debate
Mr. U. Burke: I thank the Cathaoirleach for selecting this item and the Minister of State for his presence at this debate. When we look at the Estimates for the coming year, we see that the Minister of State has reduced the forestry allocation by 22%. In the short period he has been in the job he has effectively wrecked the ten year plan that was in place for growing for the future, implemented, oddly enough, by a fellow countyman of the Minister of State, former Minister Ivan Yates. Mr. Yates was followed very successfully by another countyman of the Minister of State, the previous Minister of State with responsibility for forestry, during the lifetime of the last Government. I call on the Minister of State to reverse this decision.
The irony is that I cannot see where any saving will be made. Half of the €11 million allocation would be directly returned from Europe to the Government. In addition, many people employed in the industry face the loss of their jobs. Around 17,000 people cannot be guaranteed the contractual work they are accustomed to from February and many others who service the industry will lose out. On the border between County Clare and County Galway, between 50 and 60 people will lose their jobs in February. Coillte, now a minor player in forestry, and the seven private companies also face serious job losses. The nurseries will see their three year plan destroyed by this decision unless the Minister reverses this cut.
This is economics gone wrong. The figures are plain to see. There will be a loss of premia coming from Europe. Farmers in marginal areas will have to reassess their work practices. Many of them had taken the land they intended to plant out of the REPS and extensification schemes and will find it difficult to re-enter it. In the five months since taking office, the Minister has ruined a ten year plan. He must make the decision if he is to safeguard jobs in areas where alternative employment is almost impossible to find. The experience of those who will be made redundant cannot be replaced once it is lost. Once they are displaced they will find it difficult to return to work in the future and they will be replaced by younger, less experienced workers. If the Minister fails to give an undertaking to reverse the decision, he is taking a serious step towards the dismantling of any strategy for forestry.
Only 10% of the country is covered by forest and the ratio of private planting to State forestry is 3:1. Many land owners who have planned for forestry have lost out. I ask the Minister to return the 22% in the interests of the people who have shown commitment to the land, resources and the personnel involved.
Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources (Mr. J. Browne): I assure this House that this Government is fully committed, as articulated in repeated programmes for Government, to the long-term development of the forestry sector in Ireland. I am aware that there is concern in the industry following the publication of the Book of Estimates last week but the House will be aware that the Government is facing very difficult choices in the area of public finances and is not in a position to make as much money available for all programmes as it would wish. I am satisfied, however, that there will be no major job losses in the industry, as is being predicted.
Under the national development plan expenditure of over €900 million has been designated for the forestry sector. This demonstrates the commitment the Government has to both the medium and long-term development of the forestry sector in Ireland.
Over the last six years alone expenditure has exceeded €540 million, an average annual spend of €90 million, which is not far removed from the allocation of €82.5 million for next year. This allocation, therefore, has to be seen not only in the context of the general budgetary situation but also of the very considerable expenditure over recent years and the forestry commitment in the national development plan.
Under this Government expenditure in forestry has geared up significantly with a projected outturn this year above of almost €107 million. The Government is committed also to the sustainable development of our forests. As the House is aware, the national climate changes strategy identifies the key role to be played under the Kyoto Protocol. The strategy calls for an intensification of the afforestation programme in view of the ongoing importance of enhancing sinks capacity towards reducing overall greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. The strategy has set a target for forests to contribute 6% to the proposed reductions in emissions and a viable afforestation programme over a sustained period is essential if the target is to be met.
The impact of forestry has to be looked at also in terms not only of creating the conditions necessary to increase sustainable development but also of contributing to the maintenance of the maximum number of viable farm households and of the wider rural economy. Forestry has the potential to create employment, often in remote rural areas where opportunities are limited. The main message is that forestry, particularly farm forestry, has a future and can contribute in a real way to our economic, social and environmental well being as a nation.
I want to reassure the House that there is absolutely no question of any cuts in grant and premium levels. These remain unchanged. Indeed, the House will be aware that this Government secured increases of over 30% in the 2000 grant and premium levels. The Government also secured a commitment that the level of grants and premiums will be looked at as part of the mid-term review of the rural development plan and Commission approval can be sought for further increases in financial incentives for afforestation to take effect from 2004.
I am confident that, on the basis of the allocation provided, we will achieve a viable planting programme in 2003 and to that end I met today with representatives of the forestry sector and the IFA to work out how best we can together achieve this objective.
I again reassure the House that the Government remains fully convinced of the long-term value of the forestry programme in terms of rural development, strong and sustainable employment, import substitution and the environment. The Government's performance and delivery over the past five years is a matter of record and with the support of the forestry sector I am confident that we will achieve a viable planting programme in 2003.
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