Wednesday, 14 December 2005
Seanad Eireann Debate
Mr. Bannon: I welcome the Minister to the House and thank him for taking this motion. It relates to the need for the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government to clarify his position with regard to the nitrates action plan in light of the potential devastating impact on the pig and poultry industries and to accept responsibility for the directive, which is being treated as a political football, passing between the Departments of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and Agriculture and Food, with neither prepared to make the running, resulting in the sidelining of farmers whose livelihoods are at stake.
It now appears that the Minister has taken the bull by the horns and signed the directive into law last weekend. While that constitutes taking responsibility and action, it is highly debatable whether it is the right course of action, which the Minister and the Minister for Agriculture and Food know will put many farmers out of business. The various farming organisations are very annoyed about the Minister’s actions. They have met on several occasions and a decision was taken at the Oireachtas joint committee last week requesting the Minister not to sign the directive into law until he met the farming organisations and Department officials tomorrow. However, he ploughed ahead.
There is no doubt that the issue has been blighted by the lack of co-ordination between Departments. Fine Gael believes that designating the whole country as a nitrate vulnerable zone, without a full evaluation of the impact it will have on farming practice, is extremely irresponsible. The European Commission expects the directive, including the operation of any derogation, to be fully implemented by 2007. Irish farmers will not be able to meet the deadline because the Minister’s stalling means that no derogation deal will be secured until next year. This leaves farmers with a very short window in which to draw down grants and put in place waste storage facilities. I understand they will also have to put surplus storage water facilities in place. It is unlikely that farmers will meet this target. As I am a farmer, I understand farming. Farming cannot be carried out by the book. It requires many practicalities and common sense to operate a farm.
Officials from both the Departments of Agriculture and Food and the Environment, Heritage and Local Government have publicly acknowledged that pig, poultry and dairy producers will have a significant problem early next year with the transition from the current system to the new one as set out by the nitrates action plan. The reality is that the Department has cooked the books on the issue of the nitrates directive and is not prepared to provide any shred of scientific evidence to support the restrictions it proposes in regard to it. As they stand, the proposals will make every REPS plan illegal. REPS is supposed to be the benchmark for good farming practice and environmental protection. These plans will be made illegal because of the Minister’s actions.
The pig and poultry industries account for 6% of the total nitrogen usage and 10% of the total phosphate usage in Irish agriculture. The recommendation of the phosphorus threshold currently rests at a P index of three on the basis of the REPS plan, good farming codes and the Teagasc green book. The new recommendations reduce this level to a P index of two. In the past, a farmer could choose to operate either on an index of two or three. It is unbelievable that representatives from both the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Department of Agriculture and Food have acknowledged that pig and poultry producers will have a significant problem early next year with the transition from the current system. It is shameful and disgraceful that no one is prepared to provide any flexibility in this regard. Their actions are an indictment of both Departments.
I hope the Minister is not abandoning farming. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Minister for Agriculture and Food should show some common sense in this regard. The officials should not have been arguing. They should have been putting together a package that would keep farmers on the land. Some 50% of the farming population has left since 2001 and more are prepared to leave the industry. Given the dreadful regulations to which the Minister has signed up, what young person will stay on the land? He does not understand rural Ireland. It will be a disaster in the spring of 2006.
Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government (Mr. Roche): I am pleased Senator Bannon turned up tonight because I want to deal with a couple of the mythologies he has outlined. While I bow to his superior knowledge on farming, having listened to him, he does not have a clue what he is talking about in regard to the nitrates directive.
Mr. Roche: The nitrates directive was introduced in 1991 with the objective of protecting waters against pollution. We are now at the end of 2005 and Ireland is the last country to sign up to and introduce the regulations for the directive. If I had not signed the nitrates directive last Sunday, it would not be possible to have gone into the nitrates committee to commence the derogation negotiations on Monday. If that happened, Irish farming would be imperilled. If a Minister was prepared to prevaricate as opposed to taking political decisions, Irish farming would have been destroyed.
After lengthy negotiations and consultations with all relevant interests, including the main farming organisations — I want to pay particular tribute to the leadership of the farming organisations — Ireland’s national action plan under the nitrates directive was formally submitted to the European Commission on 29 July 2005. The programme was prepared jointly by my Department, the Department of Agriculture and Food and Teagasc.
In October last, my Department, together with the Department of Agriculture and Food, jointly issued a consultation paper on the draft regulations. On foot of the submissions received, of which there were many, and following difficult and intensive negotiations with the European Commission, a number of significant amendments were made to the original draft regulations mainly by way of concessions to meet the concerns of farmers and farm organisations. It is clear Senator Bannon has not read these concessions. These and previously won concessions include the following: the postponement of the commencement of the regulations from 1 January 2006 to 1 February 2006, meaning that the first closed period will not come into effect until late 2006; reductions in the closed period for spreading slurry for most areas; lesser storage requirements in counties Donegal and Leitrim; a new transitional period of up to 22 months for major licensed pig farmers, those covered by the IPC and IPPC arrangements, this is a major concession for small pig farmers; reduced storage requirements for farmers who generally out-winter their animals at a low stocking rate; and reduced buffer zones around water sources.
Mr. Roche: I listened to the Senator’s raiméis and I am putting the record right. The new transitional arrangements obtained for the major pig producers, together with the additional assistance measures being put in place by the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Coughlan, will give the sector a significant window of opportunity to adapt to the new regulatory regime.
On 11 December, I made the regulations to give legal effect to Ireland’s nitrates action programme and to respond to a judgment of the European Court of Justice, a matter ignored by Senator Bannon. The regulations will play a key role in the protection of Ireland’s aquatic environment while protecting as far as possible the interests of Irish farmers. The fertilisation standards specified in the regulations are based on guidelines issued by Teagasc with updatings where appropriate and were subject to detailed scrutiny by EU scientific experts. They are agronomically sound and will support optimum yields while providing necessary environmental safeguards.
Failure to have made the regulations would have resulted in further proceedings in the European Court of Justice, the imposition of daily fines on Ireland and the withdrawal of financing by the European Commission for agricultural supports. By making the regulations we can now pursue the European Commission and other member states for a derogation, the case for which has been well made here.
Ireland’s original proposal for a derogation from the general livestock manure limit of 170 kg of nitrogen per hectare per year laid down in the directive was submitted to the Commission in November 2004. This has been updated and resubmitted to the Commission. Our proposal is designed to allow certain farmers to operate, under appropriate conditions and controls, up to a level of 250 kg. The scope of the derogation being sought will cater not only for intensive dairy farmers but also specifically for grassland holdings importing manure from intensive pig and poultry units. Officials from my Department and the Department of Agriculture and Food gave the initial presentation on Ireland’s derogation case to the EU on Monday of this week. The aim is to secure agreement on a derogation by the middle of 2006.
The Minister for Agriculture and Food has announced a proposed revised farm waste management scheme to be introduced as soon as possible. The revised scheme is specifically intended to assist farmers to meet the new requirements under the nitrates action programme and regulations. The Government has put proposals to the Commission which will mean that pig and poultry farmers will be eligible for the first time for grant aid for storage facilities. The level of grant aid is being increased for all farmers and will be as high as 70% in some counties.
The Minister for Agriculture and Food has also announced her intention to introduce a scheme to support the demonstration of new technologies, for example, anaerobic and aerobic digestion systems to help the agriculture sector meet the requirements of the nitrates directive. The purpose of the scheme will be to put new options for the treatment of livestock manures at the disposal of farmers and, in particular, the pig and poultry sectors.
The reality we face is that Ireland is the last country in Europe to meet its legal requirements under the EU directive. Another reality is that Ireland has already had a judgment imposed against it by the European Court of Justice. We were not meeting our legal requirements and we face the most stringent daily fines. If I had sat on my hands and done nothing, as Senator Bannon prescribed, today we would not be in a position to negotiate a derogation for Irish farmers and we would face further action in the European Court of Justice, further daily fines and the withdrawal of support for Irish farming. No Minister who is serious about Irish farming could suggest that stasis is an option.
The only way to make progress is to make political decisions, which we have done. We got an extraordinarily good deal from the arrangements we made. I have used a considerable amount of the political capital I have in Europe to get, for example, the 22 month derogation, having met the pig farmers, having met repeatedly the leaders of the farming organisations and repeatedly discussed the matter in person with the leaders of the two major organisations. I pay tribute to them. In the face of difficult realities those farm leaders were prepared to make the kinds of decisions we as politicians should be prepared to make. They were prepared to support hard decisions because they knew that is the only way to deal with the imposition which falls on us following the introduction of the nitrates directive. We had no option because we are the last country in the European Union to do something that we should have done in mid-1990s and failed to do.
Mr. Bannon: Are the farmers 100% happy with what the Minister signed in Europe last Sunday? There is a small window of opportunity within which to draw down grants. The Minister referred to the postponement of the commencement of the regulations from 1 January 2006 to 1 February 2006. For a farmer to have sewerage facilities in place, the farmer must draw up plans and then submit an application for planning permission. Will the Minister arrange for the fast-tracking of planning permission on behalf of farmers for the provision of sewerage facilities? There are only six weeks available and the Minister is aware of the length of time it can take for some local authorities to make a decision on a planning application. What special arrangements will the Minister put in place to facilitate the provision of sewerage facilities for farmers by 1 February 2006?
Mr. Roche: The Senator will know that deferring the date of commencement until 1 February is not simply a delay of six weeks. It means that the closed period will not come into effect until the back end of 2006, which will be more than six weeks. There is a 22 month period concession for major licensed pig farmers.
As the Senator is aware, the nitrates committee was due to meet on 12 December. If I had failed to sign the regulation, we could not have commenced that derogation discussion at that time. We would have had to wait until the late spring. That would have been a grotesque disservice to farming. In this regard, the patience of those in Europe would have run out. We have already lost the European Court of Justice case, as the Senator is aware. We face daily fines and a huge and harsh imposition. We would have used every ounce of political capital we have in Europe and would have got nothing for farming.
By playing the game the way we did we put together a deal that will protect the interests of Irish farming. I listened carefully to farmers, had repeated meetings with various farming groups and, as the leader of one farm organisation
acknowledged publicly, I was the first Minister he was ever able to phone late on a Sunday night.
The reality with which we must deal is that when we must face legal obligations in Europe we should not run from them but should deal with them. If we deal with them upfront, we will be in a much better position to negotiate.
I understand the point the Senator makes about confusion because there was confusion. A letter was issued by an official from Teagasc which was regrettable because it put the farm leadership and my officials in a most difficult position and 48 hours later the letter was withdrawn. I accept that was a disservice to farming. The Senator, Teagasc in general and farming organisations are not to blame for that. It caused chaos among pig farmers because they were deeply worried. I met them and could understand their anxiety. I met Mr. O’Keeffe, who represented that sector twice in a period of eight days and was willing and delighted to do so because I learned from doing that.
We were left with no aces up our sleeve in those negotiations and the officials with whom we were dealing, as I said on a farming programme this week, knew full well that we had reached the end of the line. We made a very good deal in the circumstances. In saying that, I am not being boastful because I had established some political capital in Europe and was able to use it to benefit Irish farming. We would have faced a very dire future if we had failed to meet our legal obligations.
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