The usual reaction to a Bill of this kind is to say that it is very welcome and will be a benefit to a particular section, the agricultural community in this instance, and that its sponsors, the Agricultural Credit Corporation, a State-sponsored body, are doing an excellent job. It has been said that they do a good job, that they have a tough job and that their position is a very difficult one, and so on. I do not know whether it is or not. I have no information at my disposal to make a factual appraisal of their work. Neither has Deputy Meaney unless he has some inside information of which I am not aware. Neither has Deputy L'Estrange. I am sure they have only the same information that I have, an abbreviated report which gives no details of their administrative dealings with loan applications. It does not give any idea of how many applications were received and how many rejected. It tells you how many were approved.
At one time I would have said that a body like the ACC were very good and, indeed, essential, as they are in a country like ours where so many people are dependent on agriculture for their livelihood. But I am not satisfied that there is sufficient information at my disposal or at the disposal of any Members of the House to enable us to say, and stand over it, that the corporation are doing a good job. Over many years I have advocated that there should be a committee of this House to delve into the affairs of State-sponsored bodies. I make that appeal again today. We should have more firsthand information from all State-sponsored bodies as to how they carry on their business. We, as the people's representatives, should be in a position to assess their work from much closer scrutiny of it than we can get from these annual reports which give little or no information.
That is a big defect; the autonomy of State-sponsored bodies is almost absolute. What business can this Parliament do? How can we assess their work? We have no knowledge of the yardstick by which they measure a loan application. I say this because when I came in here I thought the ACC were being set up by the State to help farmers in financial difficulties, particularly small farmers, and that those were the main type of people they were obliged to help, farmers who might not be able to get credit from other sources such as banks. The State-sponsored body, I understood, would act as a sort of fairy godmother and give them loans at a reasonable rate of interest and help them by providing capital to develop their holdings and improve their living standards. To my mind, and from my knowledge, the ACC are not doing that job. Why do I say that when I said a while ago that I was not very conversant with the functioning of the ACC? My information in that regard is based on the fact that I have consistently advised people to go to the ACC for loans, that it was the best and most likely organisation to give them the money, only to find numbers of them coming back to me and saying: "That was sound advice; there is nothing coming from them." Many of these people were then forced to go to hire purchase concerns and pay three or four times the rate of interest when they needed agricultural machinery and so on.
My line and my party's line is that the primary obligation of State-sponsored bodies such as the ACC is to help the small man. I have heard of people with large holdings in public companies and in gilt-edged securities who do not interfere with these holdings but avail of the ACC to borrow money for current needs as it is easier and cheaper for them to do that rather than interfere with their existing investments. Surely that is not the type of person who is supposed to benefit by the Agricultural Credit Corporation but apparently that is the type of person who has no difficulty in getting a loan approved without much delay. I fear the main yardstick applied to applications in Harcourt Street is whether the applicant is in a position to repay the loan, whether he is credit-worthy. If the ACC never existed such people would not be short of capital but when it comes to the small farmer with seven, eight, nine, ten, 12 or 14 cows, if he applies there is a rigid investigation and more often than not —I cannot give figures since the report does not supply the figures—his application is rejected. Then we are told that we know all and that we should congratulate the 176 people employed in the ACC doling loans to needy farmers.
According to the report the number of loans approved in 1971 was exceptionally small, something over 6,000. How many were refused? Is the greater part of the £8 million and the greater part of the increase in transactions reflected only in the money end of it? There is no upward trend except in money: in regard to applications it does not exist. In 1966-67 the number of applications was 7,521; in 1970-71 it was 6,617. The money has increased from £3,851,000 in 1966-67 to £8,646,000 in the last year. Who is getting that money? Are the combines getting it? How many of them are getting it? What ceiling is set for them? Are this corporation devoting too much of their time and too much of their work to financing people who can prove to them in effect that they do not really want the money, that if they are refused, they can get it elsewhere. Naturally, because of interest rates generally, even the wealthiest farmers and big combines will try to get their money at the low rate which it is offered by the corporation.
Following advertising on television by the Agricultural Credit Corporation and the production by them of a very colourful brochure, many small farmers applied for loans in the belief that the money would be forthcoming within a few weeks. However, they found that that was not the position because anyone who had a bank overdraft of, say, £300 or £400, or who was in the red to his creamery to the extent of £200 or £300, would not be considered as being creditworthy. I agree with the system of having independent officers for the purpose of investigating a person's creditworthiness. I was one of the people who advocated officers as we know them, employed by the corporation for this purpose. In the past investigations were carried out in a rather backhanded and shady manner. A letter was sent to the sergeant at the local Garda station asking if such a person might be regarded as being creditworthy. Before that system was changed I discussed the matter with the late Mr. Kiely and pointed out to him the desirability of appointing independent officers. My information regarding those who are turned down for loans is very limited but not any more limited than that of any other Deputy.
I hope that in the not too distant future there will be set up representative committees of this House, not necessarily big committees, for the purpose of examining and reporting back to this House as to the administration of public bodies so that we can have a break down of expenditure and so on. Of course there will be no question of any deviation from the confidential nature of applications. In respect of the body we are discussing now, we should know how many people were turned down for loans, what were the general reasons for turning them down and would a farmer whose valuation was about £20 be turned down because he owed money to his bank or to his creamery? At the moment all any of us can have is limited information such as we get from individual cases we encounter. However, we are aware that the number of applications approved is not increasing. That is surprising when one realises the need there is for agricultural credit and having regard to the favourable rates of interest charged by the corporation.
It upsets me when I hear of a man being turned down by the corporation for money which he needs to buy some piece of farm equipment because that man will then have no alternative but to put himself in the hands of moneylenders—hire purchase companies which, at least in some cases, are charging as much as 30 per cent interest on loans. On previous occasions here I raised the question of the lending rates of such bodies with Deputy Haughey when he was Minister for Finance. Some of these people are no better than usurers.
As a Deputy representing an area where there are many small farmers, and medium farmers, too, requiring capital, and whose integrity is not in any doubt, I say that the corporation should come to the aid of these people. They need the money because of various difficulties confronting them— difficulties arising from the decline in the value of money and from lower income returns from their holdings. Also, there are farmers, big and small, who are educating their children and this imposes quite a financial burden on them.
Urban dwellers, seeing the corporation's advertisements on television, could hardly be blamed for thinking that all these people had to do was to make application for a loan and the money would be given without delay. I would like the Parliamentary Secretary to give us more information than was supplied in his brief. I want him to tell us the number of applications received by the corporation in the recent financial years up to 1971. Also, I want him to classify these applications—how many were received from farmers with valuations of less than £10, how many were received from farmers with valuation of less than £20 or £30 and how many were approved or rejected. This is the sort of information that we cannot get by way of tabling questions but it is information that we need in order to be able to assess the work of the corporation.
I am not being critical of the corporation. It would be more appropriate to be critical of the type of legislation we enact here, legislation that precludes the elected representatives of the people from getting in detail information regarding State-sponsored bodies. That kind of legislation should be implemented to enable us to make an assessment as to whether or not this board is doing a good job. This document does not give us much information about the board's activities. It tells us a little about the board's borrowing powers. The kind of business they want now is, I think, lending facilities for the big combines. The emphasis is on loans for the big people, the combines and the big farmers.
It is seldom we get an opportunity of discussing the operations of this board here. If an applicant applies for a loan and that applicant is well-to-do, with possibly a great many investments of his own, is his application approved or rejected? Is this money being made available, in other words, to people who are not in needy circumstances? I am fearful that it is. I am not sure what the position is and neither is any other Deputy as far as I know. It is all very well to send out these colourful brochures. I am not aware personally of the position outlined by Deputy L'Estrange this afternoon but, if the Deputy's statement is correct, then this body is working on a rather crooked line. Is it true that applicants who do not measure up to the qualifications of the board get loans through political influence? It is all right to make representations on behalf of an applicant legally entitled to a loan who may be in some difficulty but, if what Deputy L'Estrange alleges is happening, that is all the more reason for establishing a body to inquire into the activities of the board.
I am here a fairly long time now but I am not yet sufficiently long to be in a position to make a factual appraisal of this State-sponsored body because I just have not got all the requisite knowledge. I stress this in the hope that my suggestion will bear fruit. It is not so long since I stressed the idea of making known to the public, the people who contributed the money, the grants paid to hoteliers. That was laughed at. It was stated that such information would be a breach of confidence; this, that and the other would happen. However, after pressure, the Government had to concede the point. Now I am trying to get the same kind of result so far as the Agricultural Credit Corporation is concerned. Possibly it would benefit the corporation if that information were made public. Possibly the corporation is doing a great job. The trouble is this kind of brochure does not give us the information we really need and we have to rely on what we get from outside sources and those outside sources are the borrowers, particularly the rejected borrowers. Perhaps the Minister will be able to tell us how many are rejected.
This report contains a very interesting item. It is headed "The Smallholder". They are in tears over him in Harcourt Street:
I am not prepared, however, to write off the Irish smallholder as an historical anachronism. Much of this country's strength, moral and material, has come from the smallholder and he still has a vital and influential role to play in our society. I do not believe, and my experience confirms me in this, that the smallholders, for long the backbone of our country, will allow the advantages which were gained by the sacrifices of succeeding generations to be lost through failing to adapt to modern economic requirements.
What exactly is that calling for? It is calling out for what I am calling for here. It is calling for better conditions for smallholders and, by better conditions, I mean treating the smallholder's application more sympathetically. If he is down in the creamery and in the bank, do not write him off. That has happened time and again. If he was not down he would not be applying for credit to the corporation. I maintain the corporation is not standing fairly and squarely by the smallholder and I hope we will get a breakdown of the applicants who were rejected. I believe that, when we get that breakdown, we will find that it is mainly the smallholder who is denied a loan while the big fellow, who does not need it, gets it.
There is a good deal of reading in the chairman's address but there is very little information that would be helpful to Deputies in making an assessment of this particular body. I have been critical but I believe my criticism is justified. I would much prefer to follow the line of previous speakers and say these are a grand bunch of fellows doing a great job. But I just cannot say that. In my experience it is a waste of time to make representations to this Harcourt Street group. I want from the Minister the number of applications from small farmers which were rejected and how many applications altogether came from that source. We have not got that information. I believe it would be a good day's work if we had the kind of committee I mentioned earlier to examine in detail the affairs of this corporation so that we would get the kind of information we really need as against the kind of information the Parliamentary Secretary gave us when introducing the Bill yesterday.