I appreciate the point raised. I thought they were on their way and available for distribution. Our external trade as a percentage of GNP is at 62 per cent, one of the highest in Europe and indeed, among the OECD countries generally. These facts underline the unique importance of the agriculture and food industry in Ireland. The education, research and advisory facilites which this Bill will put in place will reflect that unique importance.
It has been a priority for me as Minister for Agriculture and Food to make our partners in the EC sharply aware of the primacy of agriculture in our economy. This, in turn, filters through to the consumers of Europe so that quality products from a pure and natural environment must be universally associated with the name "Irish" on any level. The professional services provided by this new authority will have an unique responsibility to enhance this reputation. That unique perception of Ireland is a priceless asset and the new authority will have an immense challenge to launch our producers and processors into a new programme of efficiency and quality.
The farmer of tomorrow will not be someone who survives by sheer endurance and inherited social attitudes. He must be a successful enterprise manager who can compete successfully with his best international counterparts. The test of success will be the same as in any other enterprise — knowledge and the confidence that comes with it.
One of the objectives of the Government is to ensure better co-ordination and cost-effectiveness of agricultural research, education and advisory services. Such a development can help us to focus more effectively on the priorities required for the current and future needs of agriculture. The main objective of this Bill is to set in place, by combining the considerable resources of the existing organisations, a strong unified organisational structure for the effective delivery of support services vital to the successful development of the agriculture and food industry. Such a unified body will be a powerful aid to the industry in its response to the difficulties — and indeed the opportunities — which rapidly changing agricultural developments are bringing. At the same time, given the constraints on the Exchequer, there is an overriding need to apply the resources that can be made available to the sector in the most efficient and effective way. The establishment of a single body and the consequential reorganisation should ensure that any duplication or overlapping of services will be eliminated and that resources are not wasted in unnecessary administration.
These considerations led to the Government's decision to amalgamate the two organisations of An Foras and ACOT. In taking that decision, the Government were mindful of the excellent services provided and the invaluable contributions made by both organisations, over the years, to the development of agriculture and the economy as a whole. An Foras Talúntais have earned a reputation extending far beyond our shores for the excellence of their research work. The improvements since the early sixties in the production and quality of our primary farm products — in dairying, pig production, crop husbandry and horticulture, to name a few — have been dramatic. ACOT, for their part, have transformed the former county advisory services into a single, tightly organised national service closely integrated with the State and private agricultural colleges. In particular, they have, through the certificate in farming, achieved a major breakthrough in the training of farm entrants.
The accompanying explanatory memorandum sets out the various provisions of the Bill and therefore I propose to refer only to the more important aspects. Basically, the Bill provides for the transfer of the existing functions, responsibilities, assets and liabilities of An Foras and ACOT to a new authority which will be known as Teagasc — The Agriculture and Food Development Authority. The Irish name, meaning teaching or instruction, will, in my view, provide an appropriate short title for an organisation whose objective will be to transmit scientific and technological information to the agriculture and food industry.
I have deliberately expanded the definition of agriculture in section 1 of the Bill to include,inter alia, agricultural economics and rural development. I am at present drawing up plans for a comprehensive integrated rural development programme and it is my intention to bring these plans before the Dáil at an early date.
The Bill, in outlining the functions of Teagasc at section 4, places special emphasis on the training of new entrants to farming, especially young farmers, and in research on the food sector. The Government intend to provide our farmers and especially our younger farmers with at least as good an access to the knowledge and skills they will require as that available to their counterparts abroad. That is the reason we are expressly assigning a degree of priority to training and education in the merger Bill. We are attaching a similar priority to food research and development as a responsibility of the new agency. The two are complementary and the food processing sector is faced with ever changing consumer preferences and fierce competition on both home and foreign markets. The priority to be given to entrants into farming will not mean the exclusion of the advisory services, as has been suggested, but rather will ensure that the advisory services will be put to best effect by fully trained farmers and utilised in a cost-effective way.
Provision is made for the new body to be governed by a board of 11, comprising a chairman and ten ordinary members. The chairman and five of the ordinary members will be appointed by the Minister for Agriculture and Food on the basis of appropriate experience or qualifications and the remainder will be appointed by the Minister, following consultation with the various interests involved. In deciding on the composition of the board, the Government's concern is that it should not be unwieldy in size, but should consist of persons of the highest calibre in order to discharge its responsibilities in a fully effective and business-like manner.
An important thrust in Government policy is that bodies such as Teagasc should have a strong commercial orientation and receive a good measure of funding from the industry. Teagasc will be expected to secure funding from the agriculture and food sector to the maximum degree possible, through gearing their services to the essential commercial development needs of the industry. The Bill at section 6 enables Teagasc to charge for any of their services, through charges in the case of education, training or advice will require ministerial approval because of the wider policy implications that such charges might have. Charges in appropriate circumstances should establish an effective professional relationship between producer and adviser and should ensure that the services provided are of the highest professional standards.
In the changing pattern of agriculture, increased production is not the only criterion for success. Prudent financial management, for instance, and the environmental consequences of certain production units such as silage pits are now matters of primary importance for all farmers and the research and advisory services under Teagasc will have to be competent professionally in these areas also. The Bill also provides that the new Authority, with the consent of the Minister and the Minister for Finance, may engage in activities outside the State, but solely on a fully commercial basis. Both An Foras and ACOT have over the years built up a considerable reservoir of technical, scientific and other expertise and have earned a wide reputation overseas through their participation in international consultancies and other projects. Further opportunities for income generation arise in the exploitation of the results of research through royalties, joint ventures and other means. The example may be cited of an Foras's achievement in the plant breeding area where the introduction of new and successful potato varieties have proved to be significant export earners for the seed potato industry. There are, of course, many other areas of advanced technology — animal reproduction and physiology, plant tissue culture, biotechnology to give some examples — where research findings may afford opportunities for considerable commercial exploitation. The Bill provides for such income generating activities and further facilities them by enabling Teagasc to set up subsidiaries for the purpose, with the approval of the Ministers.
There has been a great deal of discussion on the adequacy of the Exchequer funding for the research, advisory and training services for the current year. The allocation of £20 million shown in the Book of Estimates, which, of course, was settled some months ago, took account of a number of exceptional and new factors that would influence the situation after the merger of ACOT and AFT. One of these is the increased commercial orientation that I have already mentioned, involving greater financial participation from the farm and food sectors and the generation of enhanced consultancy and other income at home and abroad. Another is the major staff reduction flowing from the Government's voluntary early retirement package — already some 350 people have left An Foras and ACOT, of whom 120 were professional and 230 were from other grades. A further 120 or so are expected to leave during the year. I want to stress, as I have already conveyed to the union representatives, that the Government decision provides for voluntary redundancies only. The amalgamation will also make possible the rationalisation of the countrywide physical resources of the present organisations and consequential savings will accrue. Teagasc will concentrate on the essential services and those of lower priority will be reduced or phased out.
The net effect of these factors means a reduction in the very considerable Exchequer support which An Foras and ACOT separately have hitherto been given. I recognise that the £20 million allocation sets a formidable challenging task for the management, but I do not accept the negative attitude expressed regarding the capacity of the Authority to meet their financial targets over the full year's operation. If there are temporary initial difficulties, it will be my purpose to ensure that the new body will not lack for the essential funds to enable them to become an efficient, cost-effective agency to service the agriculture and food industry.
There is also a provision that, on the date of establishment of Teagasc, staff members of An Foras and ACOT will be transferred to and become members of it. Such transfers of staff will be on the basis that their terms and conditions of service shall not be less favourable than those applying to them before transfer.
Even allowing for the inevitable staff reductions following the formation of a single integrated agency, the new Authority will be formidable in size with a diverse range of important functions and nationwide distribution of staff and resources. Its Exchequer funding requirements remain substantial. It is important, therefore, that a proper balance should be struck between, on the one hand, the exercise of effective overall policy and financial control by the Minister and, on the other hand, scope for Teagasc to implement its mandate. Accordingly, section 13 provides for arrangements on the lines of those in the Labour Services Act which covers the broadly analogous area of industrial training, whereby Teagasc will be required to furnish the Minister with advance reports of its planned activities and associated cost estimates for each year. These will indicate the main areas of intended resource allocation as between research, training and advisory work and will require the approval of the Minister for Agriculture and Food and the Minister for Finance. This mechanism will enable an adequate measure of central policy control while leaving Teagasc with the requisite degree of freedom and flexibility to carry out its work. Under section 19 the Minister may give a direction to Teagasc to carry out, or not carry out, specified activities.
In addition to the amalgamation of An Foras and ACOT the Bill provides at section 20 for the abolition of the county committees of agriculture. The policy considerations which led to the decision to amalgamage An Foras and ACOT made it necessary also to review the position of the committees of agriculture, particularly in view of their linkages with ACOT under present legislation. The fact must be faced that, since the transfer to ACOT in 1980 of the committees responsibilities for farm training and advice the committees' scope for playing an active role in agricultural development work has become increasingly attenuated, particularly under the developments of CAP and the pressure on national funding. The position now is that over 70 per cent of committee expenditure has been absorbed in travelling expenses of the members and payment to ACOT for administrative services.
The Government have looked at the situation in the light of the general thrust of their rationalisation objectives and the need to shed any layer of public administration where possible. They decided that in the integrated organisation of the agricultural services, the continued maintenance of the county committee structures could no longer be warranted on cost-effective criteria. Hence, the Bill provides at section 20 for the dissolution of the committees. Given the long-standing place of the committees in the local agricultural scene, that decision was not taken without a measure of regret. Over the years since their establishment in 1931 they have rendered a special service to Irish agriculture of which the Government were mindful. Nevertheless, the realities of the present time could not be ignored.
However, I am sure that the new Authority will want to have available to it constant access to the best practical advice at local level and will make appropriate arrangements accordingly. The Bill provides at section 22 for the transfer to the Minister of the assets and liabilities of each committee on the date the legislation comes into effect. Any sum remaining after the discharge of liabilities will be disposed of in a manner acceptable also to the Minister for the Environment since the committee funds have been derived in roughly equal measure from county council contributions and Exchequer grants.
The legislation will have the consequence of terminating the statutory obligation on the councils to make annual contributions towards the cost of the agricultural services provided in the counties. The Government have directed that administrative arrangements be made to compensate for the loss of funding to agriculture through an appropriate transfer from the rates support grant provision in the Environment Vote. The revised system will have beneficial effects in assisting the rationalisation of the local authority finances and eliminating wasteful administration in transfers of moneys from county councils through the committees of agriculture to ACOT.
I have already mentioned the radical change which agriculture is undergoing and the need to respond to that change in a positive way. Given the changes and developments in the agriculture and food area and the current demands which these are making on the sector, the purpose and functions of the new authority must be clear and unambiguous for the outset. It will have to provide the most relevant and cost effective services with greater involvement and participation, including financial, from the commercial agriculture and food industry itself.
The Government are placing a very high priority on the provision of appropriate training for young farmers, especially for the new entrants to agriculture. The achievement in this area already is considerable but we must endeavour to ensure that, as far as possible, every young entrant to farming is adequately trained. This will ensure that investment in advisory work will give maximum returns. We need also to deploy resources away from undue concentration on production aspects and concentrate on providing services to the post-farm gate stage, especially to process and product development in the food area. In this regard, the progress towards setting up a national food centre in Dunsinea is welcome.
In the establishment of this food centre the technical and other resources of AFT and the IIRS are being combined and integrated in order to service the commercial development of the food industry. The new centre will complement the operations already established in dairy food products at Moorepark. The new facility should provide a major focus in the work of Teagasc for the development of the food sector in the years ahead. Given the current restrictions of primary production, it is essential to make maximum use of our agricultural output by way of value-added and job creation. The potential of the food area is so great that its development should not be impeded by the lack or inadequacy of key services.
The changes sought by the Bill are designed to ensure that the research and advisory services will serve the technological requirements of the rapidly changing agricultural and food industry until and beyond the turn of the century. The constraints that now exist on production in many areas are likely to be further increased. In this environment it is imperative that we are fully competitive in world markets. In Teagasc we are setting in place a single agency geared to provide dynamic support for the farming and food sector in a drive towards maximum competitiveness.
It must remain our objective to produce primary agricultural products as efficiently as possible but that is not enough. There is a compelling need for us to get the most from what we already produce. We must focus directly on the added-value beyond the farmgate, on quality, on sharper market information and on a market-led approach to our agricultural and food development. Only in this way will we have the best opportunities to maintain and improve farm incomes. The role of the new authority will be vital in order to ensure positive and constructive commercial development. In pursuing that role it will be able to call upon the very considerable talent and expertise of the two existing bodies and utilise them to the maximum advantage in a unified organisation.
Future conditions may well place demands on them to change the focus and direction of their services. I have little doubt that greater emphasis will be placed on the scope and potential of the newer sciences like biotechnology and information technology for the further development of the industry. The highly skilled scientific and professional staff of An Foras and ACOT are well equipped to tackle these demands and the aim of the Bill is to weld them into a task-force under strong single-minded direction which will successfully surmount difficulties and exploit available opportunities.
The new, fitter and leaner authority has a formidable challenge in the years immediately ahead. Energy, innovative capacity and greater commercial orientation will be required to ensure that this country secures an even stronger place in world markets. I have the highest confidence that the new organisation can make a crucial indispensable contribution to the achievement of this objective and in addition give good value to the State for the public resources that can be made available to it.
In summary then the objectives behind the Government's decision to establish a new Authority are to bring together the education, training, advisory and research services under unified management for greater efficiency, to deliver the specific services that are crucial to the success of the agriculture and food industry in the competitive environment in which it will have to operate in the coming years and to get the best value for money for the Exchequer on the resources at the disposal of Teagasc.
The Bill provides, in the Government's view, the most appropriate and effective framework within which these objectives can be realised in a dynamic and cost-effective manner to the future benefit of the agriculture and food industry and consequently to the economy as a whole.
The essence of the amalgamation is therefore a timely coupling of complementary activities, to replace dispersion with cohesion. It will be more economical of public finances, more productive of intellectual investment, and more accessible to the industry as a whole. It will give staff at once an opportunity and a challenge. We are regrouping our forces to meet the needs not alone of the present but of the future. This concept indeed has vision as befits this Government. If we are in a period of revolutionary change we must not confine ourselves to reacting to that change. We must control and direct it to Ireland maximum advantage. I am satisfied that the new Authority will be equipped to do just that.
I commend this Bill to the House.