I welcome the Bill in the sense that it is an attempt to bring land policy legislation into line with twentieth century requirements though at this time we should be legislating for the twenty-first century.
Essentially the Bill proposes to bring into operation measures that will encourage the maximisation of the potential of our greatest natural resource, our agricultural land. This is a subject on which there has been much discussion down through the years, right down through history in fact. Land has been always an extremely emotive issue. The Bill proposes to deal with a situation that did not arise until recent times, that is, the high price of agricultural land to potential purchasers, and in this context I am thinking of the small farmer or the farmer's son who would not necessarily have recourse to the kind of finances that would be available to cartels and other such conglomerates.
The Minister for State is to be complimented on the work he has put into the Bill. We are talking about a very involved issue. On the one hand we must have regard to the need to ensure that a person has a right to own property — in this case agricultural land — and at the same time have regard to the national good by ensuring that the land is at all times in the hands of those who are young enough to develop it to the maximum.
It is useful to look at the concept of land ownership in this country and compare it with other countries. As I have already said, land ownership is an emotive issue here. Despite the fact that the Constitution ensures that people have a right to ownership of private property under section 40º, in certain instances, the Land Commission could acquire agricultural land for specific reasons and re-allocate it. The high cost of agricultural land was probably the biggest disincentive to any young person thinking of becoming involved in agriculture. Ways and means had to be found to circumvent that problem. The policy of land leasing, which the Minister proposes, is the right one in present circumstances. It is to be hoped that it would be presented in such a way as to make it attractive to as many people as possible and thus ensure a big uptake so that we will continue to have the highest possible level of production.
There are many sincerely held views about the ownership of land. Perhaps it would be possible for the Minister to consider, along with land leasing, some kind of system involving a lease purchase system. I do not say that as a criticism of the Bill. It would encourage farmers or potential farmers who might be a little reticent to make the kind of investment that would be required even with land leasing. A lease purchase scheme might be an added incentive to such people.
As regards the ownership of agricultural land and agricultural output, the governing factor is the income that can be achieved from ownership or leasing of land. This will have a great bearing on the success of the land leasing plan. It is not that long ago since the kind of return for investment in agriculture was scarely regarded as sufficient to cover the risk involved. It would not have encouraged people to invest in agriculture or lending institutions to give loans to people involved in agriculture. Perhaps it might be a good idea to consider some kind of lease purchase.
There has been a lot of talk about land mobility and the need to ensure the maximum land mobility. Mobility in itself will not guarantee any level of output or income. It is the level of efficiency that will improve our position. The fairly consistent change of ownership of agricultural land will not achieve the desired effect, which is increased output. It would be desirable to allow the land to remain in the hands of those who are most dedicated and who, from the point of view of age, would be in the best position to maximise the land potential.
Much criticism has been levelled at the agricultural community in relation to the non-utilisation of land or land which requires a great deal of reclamation. If land is in the hands of those who are young enough to work it, that will solve one problem. However, there will be a problem in relation to the high cost of land reclamation. If one travels in the North one will see large tracts of land which have been reclaimed in recent years, probably with large scale EC assistance. One can then assess the scale of the problem from the financial point of view. If land which has been underutilised for some time is to be brought to its full potential and if drainage works and other necessary improvement works are to be undertaken, it will require a fairly substantial capital input from the EC or central Government. There is no way the desired level of productivity can be achieved otherwise. With the best will in the world, having regard to the experience of the last ten years, financial institutions would not be justified in making available the kind of finance that would be necessary and at the same time expecting a farmer to make a living and take on a land lease.
A number of speakers referred to the land tax. It will probably encourage land mobility but I should not like to rely on it being a major contributory factor. The other matters to which I and other speakers alluded will be far more positive. We need also to examine the whole idea of the reasoning behind any young person wishing to go into agriculture, to take on the responsibility of a farm lease and all the financial trappings that go with it. Then we come to the words which nobody likes to hear —"profit" and "incentive". There must be incentive for those who are young enough to be able to exploit the land to the full and they should be encouraged to hand over the land to those who are prepared to lease it, improve its output and thereby benefiting the economy. The only way to that is by a revamped and updated farm retirement scheme although I know it is easier said than done. It will be costly but Irish people do not take kindly to being forced to do something, it is far better to give them an incentive which will guarantee their future and their right to remain in an area for as long as they wish. We must also ensure that there is a realistic income available to them from leasing the land.
We all hope that a land leasing policy will get off the ground quickly. Assuming it does, we would like to see an overall body which might replace the Land Commission who have probably outlived their usefulness. I know that the Department of Agriculture propose to do that now but there should be an overall governing body which would have responsibility for monitoring land mobility, keeping in mind the ability of those involved by way of tenancies or land holders and owners to maximise agriculture to the fullest possible extent. At the same time, they should ensure that the land of the nation does not necessarily fall into the hands of those with the most money to buy it. That is an important point and with the parity of the punt against the dollar and the strength of a number of other currencies, it is essential that the State should have some measures at its disposal which would ensure that while we encourage land mobility we do not want to make it easy for non-nationals to acquire large tracts of land, thereby perhaps eliminating Irish nationals from the market place who would be quite willing to do the same job and probably would do it better in most cases.
Nobody will be offended if I say that the previous farm retirement scheme was not a resounding success. However, unless the land leasing Bill is accompanied by a worthwhile farm retirement scheme, it will be difficult for the concept behind the Bill to succeed. It is a matter which requires a considerable degree of examination and it should be examined very carefully so that there are sufficient incentives to ensure that we do not have the worst of both worlds, land leasing and insufficient incentives to people who own the land to encourage them to lease it.
The Bill is a constructive proposal to bring land policy up to date and to meet the requirements of our membership of the EC, the need to compete with our partners in the Community and to ensure that the land is brought into the hands of those who are young and dedicated and able to apply themselves to the task of maximising the output from agricultural land.