Agriculture: Motion [Private Members]
Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: I move:
That Dáil Éireann:
- acknowledges the central role that agriculture plays at the heart of rural life and as the engine of the economy of rural Ireland;
- recognises the vital need for clear decisive actions to be taken by the Government to support the agrifood industry which generates 300,000 jobs and contributes €24 billion to the Irish economy;
- notes the critical role that the Rural Environment Protection Scheme, REPS, Agri-Environment Options Scheme, AEOS, and the Disadvantaged Area Scheme, DAS, payments play in maintaining farmers’ income and ensuring that agriculture provides a viable livelihood for active farmers;
- fully accepts the impact that rising fuel costs has on hauliers, agricultural contractors and, in turn, on farmers’ basic costs;
- further notes the changes that the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine has implemented in the DAS through new retrospective minimum stocking ratio requirements, a cutback that has had a direct negative impact upon farmers;
- observes that the new AEOS opened by the Minister caps the maximum payment at €4,000 and only has 6,000 places, despite the fact that 13,000 farmers came off REPS 3 in 2011;
- calls on the Minister to expand the new AEOS to encompass a €5,000 maximum payment and 8,000 places in order to accommodate demand and minimise the impact of the financial transition from REPS 3;
- further calls on the Minister to rescind the minimum stocking density ratio changes he has introduced in the DAS;
- and exhorts the Government to tackle rising diesel prices and introduce an effective essential user rebate scheme that will alleviate the rising pressure on hauliers, agricultural contractors and reduce costs on farmers.
I wish to share time with Deputies Timmy Dooley and John Brown. I am delighted to have an opportunity to speak on this very important motion. As the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine knows, 10,000 farmers gathered outside Leinster House today to try and impress on him, the Government and the European Union the importance of agriculture to our economy. Agriculture represents 20% of our net exports and the agrifood industry generates 300,000 jobs and contributes €24 billion to the Irish economy. In that context, I welcome the announcement today by the Kerry Group of a major new development.
Over many generations agriculture has been a major element of our economy. The agriculture industry that we have today is a modern one which produces top class ingredients for a highly sophisticated food and drinks industry that literally exports to the four corners of the globe. High technology is now used in agriculture at all levels of the industry, from farms to large processors to niche artisan producers. It is vital for the well-being of our economy and for all the people of Ireland, both rural and urban, that we continue to have a modern, well developed agriculture sector. However, it is equally important that this sector continues to be based on the farming structure we have, that is, the family farm and that we do not move towards a farming system dominated by big commercial entities, as is the case in other parts of the world. Our farm structure has given Irish agricultural produce a very good name and our grass-based livestock production is one of the main selling points of our products.
It is also important when discussing agriculture to realise it is a very diverse industry and that people in different parts of the country face very different challenges based on the land in their area. All farmers, whether on highly productive land or on the poor land of the mountains around the country or of the west of Ireland, must be supported and encouraged to keep farming. Therefore, all of our agriculture policies must be focused to enable each farmer, irrespective of whether he or she is on an off-shore island or on the plains of Meath, to farm to the maximum ability of his or her farm.
I call on the Minister and on the Government to put down a clear marker in relation to the CAP negotiations. Nothing less than the same nominal envelope of €1.6 billion per year, as was available under the previous CAP, will be acceptable. This will mean a cut in the CAP money of 7% in real terms but any further cuts from this level will be totally unacceptable to the Irish people and to Irish farmers. It is a habit to say we are getting the same nominal amount but of course, what counts is the real value of money and not some notional value of money on an historic basis. It is up to the Minister to ensure that Ireland takes a pro-active role in negotiating the financial envelope and that this is maintained intact. Anything less will be an abject failure.
Since becoming Minister, Deputy Coveney has talked a good talk, but when it has come to actions all we have seen are cutbacks and under-spending. Last year there was a very significant under-spend of €60 million under the AEOS, REPS spend and a total underspend in the Department of €200 million. This is money that would have been a huge help to farmers who are struggling at this time and which was surrendered to the Exchequer. This year, belatedly, the Minister has announced an AEOS scheme that will not commence until 2013 and under which payments may not be made until 2014. If he had spent his allocation last year he could have introduced a proper AEOS scheme last May. Instead, when one takes into account that 13,000 farmers have left the REPS this year and that the average payment under the REPS was €6,000 per annum, he has already cut-back on next year's budget by between €60 million and €80 million. If the Minister does not pay the AEOS payments until 2014, the actual opening cut back is €80 million. This is totally unacceptable and I call on the Minister to increase the maximum payment under the AEOS he announced to €5,000 and to increase the number of places on the scheme dramatically. I also call on him to commence this scheme immediately rather than on the delayed basis that he has announced.
In relation to the DAS, the policy of the Department seems to be to hit the poor or the most vulnerable farmers all the time. I understand that 10,000 letters were sent to farmers in relation to stocking density, the vast majority of whom are living in very poor land areas and in many cases are restricted in the amounts of stock they can hold by regulations imposed by the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht. Last week I asked, by way of parliamentary question, for details on the number of people who sought derogations. I did not get an answer but the previous week I got an answer to the effect that over 9,000, out of just over 10,000, applied for derogations. I also asked how many of those who had applied for a derogation were granted one. The Department refused to tell me but my understanding, on the grapevine, is that the vast majority of those who went through this huge bureaucratic exercise, giving the Department information that it already had, will be entitled to the payment after all. The Department has engaged these farmers in a huge bureaucratic exercise that is delaying payments to thousands of farmers, who inevitably will be able to prove that they should never have had any question raised regarding their stocking density, as the information was already available to the Department. I call on the Minister, once and for all, to drop the retrospective minimum stocking ratio requirements introduced this year and to pay these farmers the money they are owed immediately. It would seem that it is of no concern to the Minister that many of these small farmers have been waiting anxiously for their payment only to be told that they will have to wait, in some cases until the end of the year to receive payment. There is a saying in Irish, mair a chapaill agus gheobhair féar. It is a very apt agricultural saying which means live horse and you will get grass and it seems the current Minister believes this policy is good enough for some of the most vulnerable farmers in the country.
Deputy Tom Hayes: It was Charlie Haughey who said that, when he was Minister for Agriculture.
Deputy Simon Coveney: We are ahead of where we have ever been.
Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: Except for these farmers.
Deputy Timmy Dooley: The Government's way is that of Marie Antoinette - let them eat cake.
Deputy Simon Coveney: The payments are ahead of schedule.
Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: Yes, because Fianna Fáil left things organised for the Minister.
Deputy Simon Coveney: The payments ---
Deputy Timmy Dooley: The Government policy is to let them eat cake.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: I ask the Deputy to refrain from interrupting.
Deputy Simon Coveney: We are doing more for farmers than ever before.
Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: Not for these farmers.
Deputy Tom Hayes: Charlie did not do much for farmers.
Deputy Timmy Dooley: He did more for farmers than anyone in Fine Gael will ever do. He understood them.
Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: I always reckon ---
Deputy Tom Hayes: He put them in jail. That is what he did.
An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: No further interruptions please.
Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív: Deputy Hayes is interrupting because he is feeling sore about the truth.
Again, to quote another saying in Irish, tá an fhírinne searbh ach sí an fhírinne í. The Minister can translate that one for himself. I am once again calling on him to give aid to those farmers who lost all of their silage and face financial catastrophe because of the very poor summer this year. All farmers accept the general ups and downs of agriculture but where somebody faces total devastation of his or her livelihood, I believe aid is warranted. Instead of coming to the aid of these farmers, the Minister has stood idly by all summer and has not acted in any proactive way to help farmers.