Irish Land Commission (Dissolution) Bill, 1989: Second Stage.

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

The purpose of this Bill is to dissolve the Irish Land Commission and to provide for attendant matters.

The Land Commission is an ancient institution that has played a notable part in our history. Its passing therefore is an occasion of significance and to mark it a brief historical sketch seems appropriate.

By the middle of the 19th century the land of Ireland, through confiscation and plantation, had passed into the hands of landlords. Their tenants were tenants at will, who held their farms, not on contract, but at the pleasure of the landlord. They could be envicted on a whim, without compensation for disturbance or for any improvements which they had carried out. This situation led to the vigorous campaign for agrarian reform about which we have all read at school. The campaign bore fruit in 1881 with the Gladstone Act — which could be described as the tenants' charter. Under it they got what were known as the 3 Fs — that is fixity of tenure, fair rent and free sale. The act also created a new tribunal — the Irish Land Commission — which was to deal with applications for fair rents. After some years, however, it became clear that the ills inherent in the system could only be cured by the abolition of landlordism altogether and its replacement by a system of tenant proprietors.

Accordingly in the series of Land Acts which were passed between 1881 and 1921 the emphasis was on the tenants buying out the landlords' interest with the help of money advanced by the State. The Land Commission was given the responsibility for this operation. It was also given power to purchase and acquire land for distribution among small farmers with a view to relieving congestion. By 1921 over 316,000 holding covering an area of 11 million acres had been brought out and 750,000 acres had been distributed among 35,000 allottees either by way of enlargement or by the creation of new holdings. Despite this progress the land problem was far from being completely solved. There were still 100,000 holdings, comparising three million acres, to be brought out. In addition, a dynamic programme of land settlement was required to relieve the worst congestion. These were the tasks facing the new Government. In 1923 the first Land Act under a native government was passed. This had two objectives, namely, to intensify land purchase and to relieve congestion: it also compelled landlords to furnish to the Land Commission particulars of their tenants' holdings. These holdings were then vested in the commission and later revested in the tenants to make them the full owners. Payment to the landlords was made in land bonds. This task was completed in the thirties.

The abolition of landlordism, while of immense psychological value, did not, however, do much to improve the material conditions of the smallholders. On the whole, these were grim. To meet the situation the Land Commission embarked on a vast programme of structural reform which aimed, through the acquisition and distribution of land, to enlarge and re-arrange small holdings and, generally, to relieve congestion. One of the constraints in achieving the latter aim was the fact that in areas where the problem of congestion was most acute there was often little land available for acquisition. In such circumstances, the only way of getting land, therefore, was through migration. This meant that a landholder gave up his home holding and was given a new holding elsewhere. The land given up was then used to enlarge and re-arrange the remaining holdings. The biggest group to migrate under the aegis of the Land Commission was from Connemara when 27 families were settled at Rathcarn in County Meath. That was in 1935. In subsequent years other families were brought from Kerry, Donegal, Mayo and Galway and settled in adjoining townlands. An interesting feature of this settlement is that the cultural heritage, including the Irish language, which families brought with them has survived.

From 1923 1.25 million hectares were distributed among beneficiaries and over 2,000 families migrated and were given new holdings. In addition, the Land Commission carried out extensive improvement works. It built dwellinghouses and out-offices; carried out drainage; reclamation and fencing; and provided roads and water supplies.

In 1976 the Government set up an inter-departmental committee to examine the whole land question and decided at the same time to amalgamate the Land Commission with the Department of Agriculture. The committee found that on the whole the existing policy of acquisition and re-distribution had outlived its usefulness. In the first place the pool of large estates available for acquisition had declined considerably. Accordingly, the Land Commission found itself acquiring smaller unused properties the acquisition of which, in general, proved long and tedious as owners availed of their statutory rights to oppose proceedings to the limit. In view of the small areas involved the contribution of this activity to the land settlement programme was minimal and it was questionable whether the effort and costs involved in the necessarily long drawn out acquisition procedures could be justified in terms of results. Another most important factor was the rise in land prices. These were far in excess of what the Land Commission could recover on resale and the subsidies involved were putting an increasing strain on the taxpayer. There was also the growing unacceptability of land bonds as a means of payment. Accordingly, the committee recommended in 1978 that the policy of acquisition be terminated and that the land on hands be disposed of. Between that time and 1983, when acquisition was terminated completely, the amount of land acquired progressively decreased each year.

As the work of the Land Commission was wound down staff numbers in the Commission were reduced, both through natural wastage and redeployment to other tasks. The availability of Land Commission staff has proved to be most useful, particularly for the expeditious discharge of other important and urgent work which arises from time to time. An example of this is the redeployment of Land Commission staff to the task of assessing the eligibility of land with a view to implementing the Government's proposal to extend the disadvantaged areas. In determining the staff numbers to be redeployed outside the commission it is necessary to be mindful of the importance and indeed the urgency of disposing of the commission's land bank as quickly as possible. Where work in this respect is proving difficult or has fallen behind schedule, staff are redeployed, within the Land Commission, from other areas. I am determined that there will be no unavoidable delay in disposing of the land bank, so as both to reduce the costs involved and to place land quickly in the hands of those who need it.

The Bill is designed to give statutory effect to the position which has obtained since 1983. In short, the Bill provides for the dissolution of the Land Commission; the revocation of the power of the State to take over land, except by exchange, for land settlement purposes; the transfer to the President of the High Court of the jurisdictions vested in the Office of the judicial commissioner and in the appeal tribunal; the transfer to the Minister for Agriculture and Food of certain functions of the commission and the four lay commissioners, mainly to allow for the disposal of land on hand and for the continuation of controls in the purchase of land by non-qualified persons; the transfer to the Minister of all land and other property vested in the commission, with the exception of fishing rights and fisheries which will be transferred to the Central Fisheries Board; and the payment of compensation to the lay commissioners.

I should like to make clear that the enactment of this Bill will not affect the continuation of certain work and functions of the commission. These are: the disposal of land on hands; the revesting in the names of the new owners of land already allotted and of land yet to be allotted; the exercise of statutory control over the subdivision of farms and the purchase of land by non-qualified persons, mainly companies and non-EC nationals; the promotion of group purchase and leasing of land as well as provision of assistance for schemes of rearrangement and commonage division; and miscellaneous statutory and other obligations such as the collection of annuities, custody of title documents, the management of lands awaiting disposal, responsibilities of the offices of Examiner of Title and of Public Trustee.

Before concluding, I would like to express my gratitude to and admiration for the work carried out by the staff of the Land Commission. Their dedication to Irish agriculture and in particular, to improving the lot of the smallholder is well known and appreciated in every parish in the country. The demise of the Land Commission is due essentially to the completion of their task. That task was both a noble and historic one and was carried out effectively, often in the face of most difficult human circumstances and always in accordance with necessarily cumbersome legal procedures.

The Land Commission has often been criticised in the past for the speed with which it brought individual redistributions to a conclusion. Such criticism ignored the major problem confronting the commission in settling upon a just redistribution. I emphasise the word "just". The need to achieve justice in the face of many competing, and often incompatible, demands was of paramount importance. For this reason, the procedures followed were necessarily complex and led to long delays. That so many redistributions were harmoniously achieved is a tribute to the dedication of the staff to which I already referred and indeed to their tremendous patience and wisdom. Irish agriculture, and indeed the entire Irish nation, owe the Land Commission staff an immense debt of gratitude.

I commend the Bill to the House.

I welcome the opportunity of speaking on this Bill. Before I get down to the substance and the quick review of the history of the Land Commission which the Minister has given us, there is one point I should like straightened out. This is an enormous omission from the Minister's contribution, which contribution I acknowledge. We all had the documentProgramme for National Recovery paraded before us at the last general election and subsequently. Under the agricultural section heading of “Making Agriculture Profitable in a Changing World”— I shall not embarrass the Minister by reading nine-tenths of this on foot of what has gone on recently — one of the key elements of the Fianna Fáil approach is — and I quote directly from that document:—“a land authority to encourage the build-up of as many family farms as possible to reasonable size”. If ever there was an opportunity to announce an intention in relation to the formation of a land authority, it is surely here this evening as we all discuss the dissolution of the Land Commission.

What has happened the Fianna Fáil promise? They canvassed on the door and were elected to office on the basis that they would provide a land authority. I take it now from the Minister's address that a land authority is no longer Fianna Fáil policy, that it was merely another empty election promise to the many farmers around the country who wanted to hear that from them. Apparently it is not to be. A little more honesty and forthrightness in these matters is really what farmers want. They do not want false promises, raised expectations. They just want us politicians to be honest and straight with them, even if what we are saying at times is not what they would ideally like to hear. They would like to know where they stand. Let us put to bed the idea of a land authority from Fianna Fáil. That is yet another election promise kaput here this evening.

We are discussing this evening, in the abolition of the Land Commission, a very significant step in Irish agrarian history. It is interesting that the Minister and I should choose the same word "significant". To many who perhaps would not be very interested in agricultural issues it seems perhaps another reasonably insignificant piece of legislation we have to get through. However, behind what we are doing today is years of history. We are closing a chapter on agrarian history. So much has happened and has had to happend to get the Land Commission abolished and so much has happened since its inception in the hundred-odd years, that it deserves a little of our time and attention today.

Let us look first at the reason for having a Land Commission at all. As the Minister reminded us — and I shall continue from there — by the mid-17th century, following a series of plantations and confiscations, up to 80 per cent of land in some of our counties had been taken and allocated to creditors of the English Parliament. There was virtually a complete transfer of power and wealth to British landlords and by the time the penal Laws were relaxed at the end of the 18th century 95 per cent of Irish land was owned by settlers, many absentee landlords, with small farmers as tenants. The well catalogued story of tragedy, of unscrupulous agents, middlemen, rack rents, evictions and ejections has been told so many times and is very well documented. By 1870 there were 527,000 yearly tenancies which could be terminated on six months' notice. During these years British land legislation for Ireland was directed at strengthening the social and legal position of Irish landlords, with a thousand landlords owning over half the land. With the growth in our population, there was intensive sub-division of holdings and small farms multiplied until 90 per cent of all holdings were under 12 hectares — 25 or 26 acres.

From 1878 to 1881 we had some very turbulent years, with an increase in the number of evictions, and agrarian crime and political turmoil generally. Then we had Charles Parnell, himself a landlord, recognising the gross injustices to tenants. Together with Michael Davitt, he founded the Irish Land League — a milestone in agrarian history. The Irish Land League's first success was the passing in 1881 of the Land Act which provided, as the Minister pointed out, fixity of tenure, fair rent and free sale. This was the Act that set up the Land Commission as a tribunal. To give the Act its full title, it is the Landlord (Ireland) Act of 1881 which is, in fact, what I understand we are repealing today.

This Act was to be followed by other land Acts resulting in a good deal of land reform up to the end of British rule in 1921. Subsequently, voluntary sale or a voluntary purchase system did not lead to the end of landlordism, so in 1923 the Irish Government's first Land Act was passed, which provided for compulsory purchase in three sets of circumstances. One was for the granting of ownership to tenants of land. Secondly, it provided for compulsory purchase to relieve congestion. Indeed, the phrase "congested district boards" that I remember going back over the years has an antediluvian ring or concept about it today, but it was not that terribly long ago when one looks back on it. The very phrase brings to mind all that was difficult and turbulent and all the hardship of the years gone by. Those three words say it all. The third provision of the 1923 Land Act was to allow compulsory purchase to create economic holdings.

Over the years there followed a change of government in 1932, the economic war with Britain, the Second World War, then in 1948 a trade agreement with Britain and two reviews of agricultural policy during the Programme for Economic Expansion, in 1958 and in 1963. We had the Anglo-Irish Free Trade Agreement in 1965 which parallelled the closure of the Community's markets, to Irish cattle and beef. There was a third Programme for Economic and Social Development from 1969 to 1972 which dealt again with agricultural policy. We then arrived at the stage where there was a series of White Papers and protracted negotiations that led to our entry into the Community, along with the United Kingdom. We then had the benefits of the Common Agricultural Policy and initially there were quite considerable benefits with the price guarantees and all that went with them. There followed our entry into the EMS when, from the agricultural perspective, the gloss suddenly went off our membership of the European Community and things did not turn out to be as we thought they would.

We are now into the scenario of the reform of the CAP with stabilisers and production quotas of one kind or another. We are witnessing the decoupling of agricultural production from agricultural aids. As long as the money from Europe is not directed directly to increasing production, helping production or increasing efficiency of production, as more and more aids are directed at setaside type measures, extensification measures, income aids or paying farmers not to produce, we may keep this generation on the small, uneconomic holdings in the remote parts of rural Ireland. But I doubt if there is a future of any kind on those holdings for the next generation if all their parents have benefited from in the context of the EC is handouts to pay them to produce nothing. That will not ensure a thriving rural agriculture. That will not ensure the survival of the family farm.

You cannot call that farming. That is just paying people to be quiet and do nothing, paying them in the hope that they will stay in the country rather than join the dole queues in our cities, migrate or emigrate. These are the choices that will be before them. When you decouple production from agricultural aids, which is effectively the result of the reform of CAP and what President Bush wants to do in the US, and when you give handouts and tell farmers to do nothing, that is the writing on the wall for the future of the small family farm in rural Ireland. To this, above all, we must all turn our attention to make sure there is a future.

I was glad to note in the Minister's speech that in maybe three short sentences he referred to what land policy would be left in his Department. I ask him to think very carefully about this. He must ensure there is a land policy section in his Department and that the expertise now existing in the form of field officers and Land Commission staff in the various sub-offices throughout the country will not be moved. He should keep those expert in conveyancing, in the Land Acts and in handling problems in rural Ireland to operate a clearly defined land policy in a clearly defined land section of the Department of Agriculture and Food.

As I interpret what the Minister said, the present land policy would appear to operate on four levels, commonage division, medium to long term leasing and encouragement in that area, a distributive rearrangement which we have had all along, and group purchase schemes which I hope the Minister has included. There are the bones there of a land policy. Add to that the Euro-perspective and what the Structural Funds are allowing us, the set aside schemes extensification, and perhaps income aids of some sort which come within a land policy concept, given what it is trying to achieve.

As far as Fine Gael are concerned, a land policy is to ensure as far as practicable that the ownership or management of our agricultural land is and remains in the hands of those best fitted to use it and to improve the physical structure of agricultural holdings generally. That is the Fine Gael policy in relation to how to make the best use of our agricultural land and agricultural structures at the moment. I hope the Minister will clarify and crystallise what land policy means to him.

I welcome the brief reference in his contribution to it, but in the wake of the Land Commission we need to develop in detail what land policy will be left as far as the Fianna Fáil Minister is concerned. What section of the Department will look after it? We need assurances that the expertise that is there now, the manpower within the Land Commission, will not be decimated and that we will make the best use of them in the future.

The one point in the Minister's speech which any of us by accepting the Bill here today agrees with in the absence of replacing it will something else, is that we are removing any controls on the purchase of land or any option or schemes on the control of the purchase of land which had been effectively vested in the Land Commission. In other words, they could claim priority of land in an area where they needed if for division among farmers. That is gone. That is one of the major changes we are facing. If we accept that they will no longer be part of a scheme for the control and purchase of land, we must be quite sure we know what we are doing, that we are ready for it as a country and what its implications are.

When you get into private property, compulsory purchase and so on, it will be very hard to replace that control with an equivalent, given our Constitution. Perhaps we should debate whether we should go down that road and if such controls will be necessary in future. We will have a two tier structure in agriculture very shortly. On the one hand, we will have the large dairy farmer with a substantial quota who will have cash in hand, thanks to the good returns he is getting for his milk — fortunately he or she is getting a good return now, having worked very hard for very long with inadequate returns — and any farmer with a sizeable quota will be able to outbid virtually any other farmer, not only small farmers but farmers in other agricultural enterprises, for land that may come on the market. On the one hand, the large dairy farmer will be in a position to buy up land as it comes on the market and become even bigger.

The Minister says he is not changing the function of the commission in relation to exercising statutory control over the subdivision of farms. That is agreed. I would like clarification on a point. The Minister referred to the purchase of land by non-qualified persons, mainly companies and non-EC nationals. As we face into 1993 and the single market, the removal of trade barriers of any type, technical and/or other, with encouragement of the free movement of goods, services, capital and personnel throughout the Community, and as a fully fledged member of the Community, not in any second stream, how will we be able to implement control over the purchase of our land by non-nationals? The Minister talks about non-EC nationals here. I take it he is saying that within the Community there is total access to purchase of land in any country by any Community member. What controls is he envisaging in relation to non-EC nationals? How will he prevent them purchasing our land? How will he prevent companies — Irish companies I presume; he does not say non-EC companies — purchasing land? What does he mean by a qualified person when it comes to the purchase of land? Is it qualified in the sense of holding the three year green certificate in agriculture? We need this clarified.

Of all the areas of concern in the wake of the Land Commission it is the future of Irish land and in whose hands it may end up and whether, ever again, the small farmer with the family farm in a remote part of rural Ireland will be in a position to increase his farm to an economic holding, that is most important. Are we saying today that any holding that is still uneconomic despite the years of existence of the Land Commission will never again get the opportunity of becoming economic? Or are we saying, effectively, that unless the farmer concerned has a reasonable dairy quota and has cash in hand to purchase land over the years, he will be denied access to the ownership of more land? I am not quite sure how those controls will continue to be exercised, how we define a non-qualified person, on what basis you will say a company cannot buy land or how we will prevent non-EC nationals buying our land. I will be very interested to hear what the Minister has in mind and how he will be proceeding in relation to that area.

In this arena, too, we have the difficulty of the milk quota being attached to land and the suggestion that post-1992 the milk quota might be separated from the land. Will the milk quota be transferable across borders then? If the milk quota stays with the land, will there not be an enormous temptation, not just for the larger Irish dairy farmer but the dairy farmer in the Community generally, to purchase small and unviable milk quotas at the moment? Are we looking to a future of the land getting back into the ownership of a few, the few mainly being large dairy farmers? This whole area is rather grey. I would be delighted if the Minister would expand and develop his own thoughts and the thoughts of his advisers in the Department of Agriculture as to the road we are heading down and the controls the Community envisage being put in place in relation to handling these problems.

The original press release — I think it was in 1986 — which dealt with the dissolution of the Land Commission stated that it was the aim to have all lands held by the Land Commission disposed of by the end of 1986. The previous Minister for Agriculture went out of office in February 1987. He might have been a couple of months behind schedule if he had not disposed of all of the lands by then, but this Minister appears to be two and a quarter years behind schedule. Perhaps the Minister would tell the House how much land is still on hand to be disposed of by the Land Commission. We must remember it was all supposed to be gone by the end of 1986.

The Bill also deals with the problems of land reverting to the original ownership where there have been protracted negotiations which have not been brought to a conclusion. This is dealt with in section 7. How many such deals are involved and how long have the negotiations been going on? What acreage of land is involved where the deal has not been completed and the land will be reverting to the owners from whom the Minister was trying to acquire it?

Another matter which concerns me greatly is the fact that this Government, in the National Development Plan, have made such ado about integrated rural development. As an aspiration all of us have to support the concept of integrated rural development, trying to stabilise remote rural communities and ensure that there is a future for the small family farm that would not strictly be called economic in today's agricultural scene. The problem with all of this and with the aspirations in the national plan is that the only body in the State fit to advise this or any other Minister in relation to rural development and rural policy was the rural economy research centre in Teagasc. We do not have any agricultural economic institute, despite the fact that agriculture plays such a part in employment, exports and wealth production. We will be demanding much from agriculture in the future in terms of the support of the country. All we had was the rural economy research centre in Teagasc or — as it was — AFT. What has this Minister done in the past 18 months? He has talked about integrated rural development. We have heard a lot about pilot schemes here, there and yonder and we have questioned the way the co-ordinators of the pilot schemes were appointed.

Where was the Deputy last week? I announced, among other things, a rural tourism programme.

I accept and welcome the agri-tourism programme.

Deputy Doyle is talking about Teagasc. This Minister has wiped out all research centres in the west.

If the Minister had been at the launch of their annual booklet by the Irish Shows Association his ears would have been wagging at the words which were heaped on him regarding the delay in the announcement of the agri-tourism programme since such support is available from Europe for it. It was long overdue but very welcome. That has nothing to do specificially with the rural economy research centre in Teagasc.

It has a lot to do with the integrated rural development programme.

The only body in this country fit and qualified to advise the Minister or his successor in relation to integrated rural development and rural economy generally has been decimated by a reduction of its resources by 75 per cent in the past 18 months. Some of us are cleverer than others in this House but I am not looking anywhere in particular. I do not think the Minister, I or anybody else in this House could do without the advice of the single body which can direct integrated rural development and which has the brief and the experience to advise the Minister of the day in relation to it. Apparently this Minister has the benefit of such wisdom that, with the stroke of a pen, the one centre which can advise him can be reduced by 75 per cent. The few who are left in the section are dealing with the national farm survey for the EC, which is part of the farm accounts data network compulsory on each member country. I venture to suggest that if it were not compulsory it would have gone also. We cannot let it go because we have to do it due to our Community commitments. We need to pay more than lip service to integrated rural development. We welcome the agri-tourism package the Minister mentioned. We have tremendous potential in this area.

The non-thoroughbred horse industry is part of it too.

We welcome the £400 premium for the pure Irish draught foal which all 70 of them will get next year but if the Minister is concerned with integrated rural development and with agricultural enterprises which are not controlled by quotas, he might consider extending that £400 draught foal premium to the non-thoroughbred foal that qualifies for registration in the IHR.

A passing reference to such matters would be in order, but I must remind the Deputy and the House generally that we are dealing with the Irish Land Commission (Dissolution) Bill and I should like Members to relate their remarks specifically to the subject matter of that Bill.

I take it you allowed me to respond to the Minister when he made the various points. I welcome both the draught foal premium and the agri-tourism package. Let us keep going. There is a long road ahead.

My colleague, Deputy Paul Connaughton, as Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture in the previous Government, did extensive work in relation to land policy generally. In the wake of the Land Commission whose dissolution we are discussing we have to be very clear about the land policy we have in place and the assistance and aids which will be available to the non-economic farmers. It was Deputy Connaughton's view, which I fully support, that one of the most immediate ways of achieving the aim that either the ownership or the managment of our agricultural land be in the hands of those fit to use it was through medium and long term leasing. Leasing is very attractive because it appeals to those who, for reasons of age, ill health or otherwise cannot work their land effectively but still want to retain their ownership and see the land put into good production. On the other hand, leasing appeals to those who need extra land but who are not in a position to effect the purchase of it outright and cannot raise the capital costs. About one million acres are leased on the 11-month system. About one third of this is leased to people for periods of more than five years. It is this one third who are in a semi-permanent leasing position towards whom we must direct the long term and medium term leasing policy. To do this in 1984 it was necessary to introduce a Land Bill. I refer to part of the debate in the Seanad on 23 October 1984 which puts together what has happened over the years in relation to the developments from the time the Land Commission was set up to what we are facing today. The following is stated at columns 356 and 357 of volume 353 of the Official Report of the Seanad:

The programme of reform of landlord tenant relations in Ireland saw the tenant advance from the position of occupation at the whim of the landlord to himself becoming the owner of the land. The process began around 1860 with a series of Statutes which granted progressively more rights to the tenant until the balance of advantage lay with him over the landlord. Following the successful struggle of the Irish farmer to gain ownership of his own land, there was a natural determination to ensure that the old system of landlordism should not be revived. Accordingly, the Land Commission were given the power to control leasing and the legislation favouring the tenant remained on the Statute Book.

This has been the difficulty over the years in encouraging leasing, particularly medium and long term leasing.

This emphasis on ownership led to a situation where possession of land,per se, tended to be regarded as an end in itself and more important questions of user and management tended to be overlooked. The instinctive the basic motivation of land holders was the determination to retain control of their holdings. Because the legislation was so much oriented towards the tenant, the adoption of leases, even of a short or medium term nature, came to be seen by land holders as a threat to their secure ownership of the land.

This was the Minister of State on the introduction of the Second Stage of the Land Bill. It puts in a couple of sentences the fears that were there and which, to a large extent, still exist among owners of land who are not in a position to use it themselves as productively as they might; they retain these fears of long term leasing in case it would weaken their claim to the land in any way. That is understandable given the turmoil of agrarian history in Ireland.

This situation led, in turn, to the adoption of the 11-months letting system as a source of revenue for those who were unable or did not wish to work their lands themselves. As this is merely a licence to use land for a certain limited purpose for a certain limited period it does not constitute a letting in the full legal sense and is not, therefore, governed by the existing landlord-tenant legislation.

This was the moot point.

If, therefore, we wish to persuade those at present letting under the 11-months system, and any other farmers for whom the arrangements might be beneficial, to turn to leasing instead, then an obvious requirement is to repeal any legislation which might appear to act against their interests.

This is exactly what the Land Bill, 1984, did. The Minister stated at the time that it was right that a prospective lessor should have the assurance that when the lease expired he would be able to resume possession without any fuss or legal complications. Any apprehension about claims under law to tenancy interests, compensation and so on, would represent a serious, if not decisive, deterrent to a lessor. Because of this the Minister considered it proper that those statutory provisions in the old legislation which seemed to favour the tenant unduly during the course, or on expiry, of a lease should be identified and revoked. Taking that explanation in the context of our agrarian history and what our forbears had been through to get back into the possession and ownership of the land, it is easy to understand the difficulties to date in persuading people to opt for medium or long term leasing. We must do everything possible, and I encourage the Minister to launch a vigorous PR campaign to get the millions of acres that are now lying fallow into the hands of the young, energetic and efficient farmers who may not have the capital to purchase land themselves but who are in a position to make use of a lot more land than they have at the moment.

In that year too, in the Social Welfare Act of 1984, the previous Minister changed the system of assessing income under the social welfare code which had discriminated against leasing. This was very important because it was a further encouragement towards leasing. It effectively means that a farmer who leases his land will be assessed on the same basis as a farmer who lets his land under the 11-months system. In recent times Fine Gael moved, in Private Members' time, the Economic Development Bill. Again, in relation to the assessment of leases from land in relation to income tax we suggested that the £2,000 limit be increased to £5,000 before the wrath of the Revenue Commissioners or any tax penalty would be incurred. Regrettably that Bill was not successful. I would suggest to the Minister that, for the sake of the most efficient use of our land, a further enticement be offered to those who are not in a position to make good use of their own land to encourage them towards medium and long term leasing.

The group purchase scheme has been a great success. It has been made use of in some areas more than others. Perhaps the Minister could bring us up to date on whether any group purchases have been effected by the Land Commission officers in recent times and what structure he envisages putting in place to ensure that the system of group purchase will be there to be availed of in the future.

Any system that will help a group of uneconomic smallholders to purchase land on the open market, with the finance and legal advice that is necessary, directed by a Land Commission or Department of Agriculture officer has to be encourged. I would ask the Minister to advertise the fact that this system is available. The division of a 200 or 300 acre farm among six or seven smallholders can be done very economically if the situation is managed properly for the group of farmers, but none of those six or seven farmers would be in a position individually to bid at auction for some or all of that land. Even if it was sold in separate lots each lot would cost far more per acre than if it were sold as one lot and subsequently divided between five or six farmers. Group purchase must be encouraged; the financial and legal advice must be available to farmers to do this. I would urge the Department to undertake far more activity in relation to this.

Commonage division hardly needs much comment because it has been such a success. There is still a lot of commonage not divided. There are still disputes among neighbours and farmers as to who owns what in different areas. Again it is an area that makes best use of the land involved. In regard to the disease eradication programmes it makes sound sense because there is no question of cattle being allowed to graze on a commonage now. It would be very difficult for farmers to consider letting their cattle out with those of the neighbour when they are not quite sure of the disease status involved. To make the most efficient use of our land, the ownership must be clearly defined and the different areas fenced off and there should be the greatest observance of the provisions of the disease eradication scheme.

I am supporting the Bill before the House today for various reasons. I am not saying I do not have reservations. I am not saying I am satisfied with the attention the Minister gave to what he considers to be land policy at the moment. I still do not understand what structure will remain in the Department of Agriculture to handle the issues. I am not sure what use the Minister will make of the expertise of the staff now in the Land Commission or whether he is going to disseminate that expertise and experience and scatter them to the winds. I urge the Minister to keep a core of expertise in his Department in order to have an effective and obvious land policy.

This move today is very significant and brings to a close an important chapter in our agrarian history. I hope we are ready for what we are doing here today, for a policy involving no controls on the purchase of land. I have asked the Minister to clarify what controls he says he will still be retaining in relation to companies, qualified persons and non-EC nationals. Perhaps the Minister would expand on this since this is the most important aspect of what we are talking about. The Minister stated in his speech that the existing policy of acquisition and redistribution has outlived its usefulness. When we look back and review the history — we all refreshed our memories when we were looking up a few notes for the debate here this afternoon — I hope Charles Stewart Parnell and Michael Davitt would have agreed with the decision we made here today.

I welcome this opportunity of speaking briefly about the Bill on the dissolution of the Land Commission. There can be little argument with the desirability of making the most efficient use of the country's main resource, its agricultural land. Since the foundation of the State, various Governments have attempted to achieve this but have faced many problems. In Ireland, the structure, the size and the mobility of farm holdings act against this desirable aim. One of the main tools of Government policy throughout the years has been the Land Commission.

The Land Commission were originally set up as a rent fixing body in the last century. In 1923 the functions of the commission were changed to the acquisition and allotment of land. The aims were to improve the structure of farm holdings so as to increase the efficiency of the agricultural sector. Under the 1937 Constitution the desirability of maintaining the family farm structure was accepted. Unfortunately, the Land Commission became more and more irrelevant as time went by.

Today as we propose to abolish the Land Commission we can clearly see their failure in achieving their aims. The Land Commission have failed miserably in achieving a desirable and viable farm structure. They have failed to bring the size of farms up to a viable level. It must be stated that the commission faced many problems which hindered them in pursuit of their policy. First among these is the fact that as technology and efficiency in agriculture improved, the size of a farm to remain viable increased greatly. In the twenties one would require between 20 and 25 acres of land to have a viable holding; in the late seventies one would want a minimum of 50 acres to have a viable holding and in the eighties, if one was in beef or cereal production, one would require in the region of 100 to 200 acres to have a viable holding. Perhaps in the future in relation to cereal production one may require between 300 and 400 acres to have a viable holding and this is regrettable. The writing is on the wall for cereal producers and they will have to examine other methods to survive.

Another area of criticism is the allotment policy of the commission. In the seventies they acquired 30,000 acres per annum but the average allotment was only seven acres which is hardly significant in making a small holding viable. The cost of implementing land policy also spiralled in the seventies. As the price of land increased so, too, did the cost of allotment. The average cost of allotting one acre of land in the seventies was £200. With 30,000 acres being allotted each year, the total cost was £6 million. There was a flaw in the original Bill in that it did not require the commission to cover their costs. It cost £6 million per year for a policy that was not working. This was compounded by the fact that originally the commission acquired large estates. In later years, most of the acquisition was of small farms whose owners resisted acquisition because they were paid in land bonds and not in cash. This made the life of the Land Commission more difficult.

In 1978 the Interdepartmental Committee on Land Policy proposed a change in policy from improved land structure to improved land use. They proposed to do this through increasing land mobility and regulating the land market. The committee proposed the abolition of the commission but this was later dropped. Many of the proposals of the committee with regard to the land policy were very positive. The merits of the committee's proposal for a selective purchase tax are as valid today as they were then. This tax provided an incentive to small farmers to purchase land and it also provided a disincentive to land speculators and large farmers. I recall ten years ago when a genuine effort was made to try to curtail the larger farmer and speculator from getting bigger and to give a fair chance to the smaller farmer and make his holdings more viable. Difficulties also arose with regard to this proposal. In the seventies, there were not huge discrepancies between incomes from sector to sector. Now in the late eighties there has been such a variation in incomes that there would be certain difficulties with that tax and I acknowledge that.

It can be seen clearly that the Land Commission have failed and, therefore, their abolition should be welcomed. I am amazed that this Bill is not accompanied by any proposal, especially in the light of the Government's promises at the last election, to tackle this whole area of land policy. The fact that the Land Commission failed does not mean that the land policy will fail. There has to be increased land mobility especially for small developing farmers if they are to stay on the land. An alternative is long term leasing. This is a realistic option for certain sectors, for example, the sheep and possibly the dairying sector but apart from those, I would have certain reservations. The Government should encourage leasing in these particular sectors.

It is now four or five years since the former Taoiseach, Deputy Garret FitzGerald declared that the commission would be abolished. Since then over £60 million has been spent by the Land Commission, according to theIrish Farmers Journal, of which over £20 million was spent solely on administration. The Bill to abolish the Land Commission is long overdue but the commission's abolition does not fulfil the responsibility of the Government with regard to land policy. In conclusion, it is a pity the Minister did not use this occassion to propose the major changes required in the land policy to ensure that our land is used in the best and most efficient way.

I take a positive view of the Land Commission, their history and the role they have played in Irish agriculture and I would like to throw the droch-chás back in the face of those who have been spreading it around quite generously today in the direction of the Land Commission. The proposal before us is to dissolve the Land Commission who were set up under the Land Act, 1881, to revoke their power to acquire land and to sell off the land they hold at present.

Since the winding down of the activities of the Irish Land Commission, a new type of estate has developed which has created a charter for what has been generally known in rural Ireland as the "land-grabbers". They are comparable in many ways to the old absentee landlords. They have large holdings, they are inefficient and they have low production. Arising from that winding down of the activities of the Land Commission, there has been a heavy involvement of non-farmers in Irish agriculture, who use land for speculative and tax shelter purposes. The abolition of the Land Commission, which we are dealing with today, heralds the good fortune for this particular class of land-holder. It is the final abdication of land use policy by the Government. In future, the grabber with the cheque book will reign supreme in the countryside.

Land has a special constitutional status and is different from other properties in that regard. Article 45 of the Constitution states that the State shall, in particular, direct its policy towards securing that there may be established on the land in economic security as many families as in the circumstances shall be practicable. Land is the only property or means of production specifically referred to in the Constitution.

The commission have allotted over 2.2 million acres of untenanted land since 1923, have acquired over 12,000 estates for the purpose of land distribution and made nearly 100,000 seperate allotments. Land Commission activity over the last 30 years has increased the farm size of some 50,000 mainly small farm operators by an average of at least 18 acres; inhibited expansion by larger operators, thus preventing concentration of land in the hands of a few large farmers, and decreased the level of farm fragmentation which causes waste and inefficiency through inhibiting absorption of large-scale technology. Since 1950 some 13,000 holdings have been re-arranged. In my own constituency of Kildare some 300 under-used estates were taken over and 2,400 families established there. They now make a good living from agriculture arising from that positive action. There is plenty of scope for further such action not alone in my constituency but also in others.

Studies have shown that the Land Commission allotees used their newly acquired land better than those full-time farmers who inherited or purchased land on the open market. Land Commission activity has contributed in the past, both socially and economically, to the development of a more viable rural community and has played a key role in distributing land for public amenities and infrastructural developments which would not have occurred in their absence.

The consequences of a lack of land policy and an agency to carry it out will be that the best land will be concentrated in the hands of fewer farmers. At present it is estimated that 25 per cent of all agricultural land is owned by 5 per cent of farmers, despite the activity of the Land Commission. This demonstrates the continued need for the Land Commission or some similar agency. Small and medium farmers will not be able to afford to purchase land to increase their production and will thus be economically marginalised in the future. We had a good example of this in the recent past, in the last week in fact, when land was sold in the southern part of the country at £6,000 an acre in the process excluding young farmers and other smallholders in the area.

It will be very difficult for young farmers to gain entry into the market due to the high price of land, their inability to lease at favourable long-term rates or the lack of collateral to purchase land. Land prices will increase in real terms due to competition from non farming interests in land. This land will be used for tax and speculative purposes and not for production and providing employment on the land. That is the most inefficient use of land.

There will be no instrument available to confront their structural problems, farm sizes, distribution, fragmentation, age of farmers and so on. If we want a progressive farm structure then there must be some agency capable of monitoring and implementing a land policy. There is no other comparable instrument to carry out land policy. The abolition of the Land Commission without replacement signals the Government's abandonment of a land policy. Quotas are a most important factor when considering the structure of land. The Government should be examining ways of pressing for quota reforms at European Community level so that they can come under the aegis of a land use agency.

I would describe Fianna Fail's record on the matter of land use policy and on the Land Commission in recent years as opportunistic and playing with land use policy. The 1977 interdepartmental review, when published, was opposed by Fianna Fáil because its proposals were for market regulation. They pledged at that time their loyalty to a more interventionist Land Commission. In 1980, the Fianna Faacute;il Government published a White Paper on land policy. That was not simply a Fianna Fáil Party document, rather it was a document published by a Fianna Fail Government. It was radical, positive and contained very definite proposals for streamlining and enhancing the role of the Land Commission. It contained proposals for surcharges on land purchases by non farmers which were very specific and detailed; assistance with the purchase of land for smallholders, 20 per cent of the price to be provided for landholders with a £30 valuation or under; control of land purchase with non farmers not being allowed to buy more than five acres of land without the consent of the Land Commission; a priority list or a register of people eligible for land allotment by the Land Commission. It stated, and I quote from paragraph 31:

Even with the introduction of the foregoing measures, there will still be a need for compulsory acquisition for as long as a substantial acreage of land remains underutilised in the hands of owners who are not interested in its development. It has been estimated that over 30 per cent of the land of the country is taken up by farmers which have shown no significant growth in recent years. To abandon the compulsory machinery of the Land Commission would be to accept, if not encourage, bad husbandry. Accordingly, in line with a policy which aims at the promotion of more efficient land use for agricultural development, the main thrust of acquisition in the years ahead will be directed at those lands which are substantially under-utilised or neglected and not contributing their share to agricultural output.

Paragraph 32 states:

In western areas there are, additionally, structural and demographic reasons for the continuance of a programme of land acquisition and division in the foreseeable future.

It also dealt with the retention of the use of land bonds rather than direct financing and the purchase of land by non nationals was to be severely restricted. It also dealt with late inheritance, farmers' retirement, commonages, the Land Commission itself, on which it states at paragraph 42:

The Government have considered whether the Land Commission as an institution should be abolished and they have decided that, on balance, the establishment of a second body to implement land policy would not be justified at this juncture. The intention is, therefore, that the Land Commission will be responsible for putting the new policy measures into effect as well as operating the existing programme on whatever scale may be determined by the Government from time to time.

Paragraph 46 of that White Paper reads as follows:

The Government intend to introduce legislation at an early date to give effect to the new measures outlined in this White Paper. In arriving at their conclusions, they have been conscious of the economic and social importance of land tenure and of the complex and sensitive nature of the subject. They are satisfied that the policy proposals now being put forward will have significant economic and social effects and will make an important contribution towards creating the conditions in which Irish agriculture can develop further in the years ahead.

That is a quotation from the Fianna Fáil Government White Paper of 1980 and those are the proposals contained therein. What has happened since then to bring about such a massive change? As I said, it was not a party political document, rather it outlined what the Government intended to do. I must say that they have come a long way since then.

On behalf of the Labour Party I propose a major land reform programme through a new land agency to ensure that as many people as possible work on the land, to ensure that land is put to fullest productive use and to reverse the dangerous trend of land concentration in the hands of fewer and larger farmers. The pattern of land ownership is a major reason Ireland has one of the most under-capitalised, least developed and least productive agricultural sectors in Western Europe. Overall, our farm population in terms of age, education and training, is ill-equipped to develop a modern production sector. Only 20 per cent of farms are categorised as modern, whereas nearly one-third are marginal or traditional farms where poverty is concentrated despite modernisation schemes which in effect only assist already developed farmers, thus widening the skill gaps in farm production; 21 per cent of farmers have off-farm employment and half the holdings fail to provide full time employment for a farming family. Over 35 per cent of land is held by farmers aged 55 and over, making up just under one-half of all farmers, and only 16 per cent of farmers are 35 years or under.

Farmers over 55 years operate over two million acres of land and it is estimated that up to 50 per cent of farm holdings in the western region are fragmented. The high cost of agricultural land purchased by professional and business persons who farm as a part time activity inhibits new, younger farmers getting into farming.

A number of myths are propagated about the size of farms. Many believe that bigger is better but this is not the case. Farmers in the 40 to 100 acre range are more productive in terms of output and labour per unit than larger farmers. Let us make a comparison with the most productive agricultural economy in Europe, Holland, where the average farm is about 30 acres compared to an average of 50 acres in Ireland. Althought Holland has about one-third the amount of agricultural land as Ireland, it employs thousands more in the farming sector. In Holland the food processing sector employs 100,000 more workers than in Ireland and about 75 per cent of all agricultural produce is processed. Holland employs more people on less land and her farmers have a higher income in both the farm production and processing sectors because farming is geared towards food processing. This means more value added production which, in turn, means more jobs in industry and higher farm incomes.

Labour's land policy will be an integral part of ensuring that land is put into the hands of more farmers with security of tenure and producing for higher value-added products. We propose the establishment of a land agency to replace the Land Commission and I ask the Minister to take that on board in line with his own party's policy. The functions of such an agency would be to increase the availability of land to present farm holdings and reduce farm fragmentation, to divert land coming on the market to the hands of productive family farmers and to acquire or encourage the release of neglected or under-utilised land to farmers who would develop it. Such land agency would regulate the sale of land by establishing a register of land applicants.

Farmers who meet commercial criteria would be placed on the register and given priority to buy land whenever it became available for sale. Such criteria would include the amount of land already in possession of farmers to prevent concentration of land among large farm holders, production performance on existing holdings, provision of an outlying farm plan by the applicant and no age limit where there is a prospective successor. Inability to pay for land should not be a bar to being placed on the land register. Fiscal incentives should be used to place preferred applicants in a more advantageous position to purchase or lease available land on a long term basis.

Such a land agency would establish a land bank through their own purchase of land to ensure that productive farmers would avail of more land, either through purchase or long term leasing from the agency. The land agency would acquire land by first option purchase of land that comes up for sale and there would be a maximum limit on land held by native and foreign absentee farm holders. There would be compulsory acquisition of neglected holdings and incentives to release land on the market. They would provide capital for farm improvements, etc., in exchange for sale of land to the agency.

The land agency should also operate an expanded farm retirement programme. The number of farms held by bachelors with no direct successors is high and an attractive retirement programme would mean the provision of retirement pensions at attractive rates indexed against inflation. In return the farmer would lease the property — apart from the main residence and surrounding land — to the agency or other persons on the register with ownership reverting to the agency on death.

The land agency would be a key factor in assisting optimum land use and planning agreements with farmers whereby support in land purchase, enlargement and capitalisation would be part of a development plan to ensure that the land was put to its best possible use. This use would be geared to the supply of raw material for the food processing industry as well as drives for import substitution and export led commodity growth. Land holdings and land use are the basic building blocks of a modern agricultural sector. As long as the structure of farm holdings impedes the objectives of providing a greater income for a greater number of farmers, as long as production is unco-ordinated to the needs of the industry, we will fail to employ our agricultural resources to their fullest potential. Ireland will become marginalised in the European food industry or monopolistic multi-national interests will exploit our resources on their own terms.

I have demonstrated that a land policy and an agency to implement it are essential. The proposal to abolish the Land Commission without an alternative is a proposal to hand over our land policy and structure to the speculator and the grabber. It is an abdication of responsibility by the Minister and the Government and will have the effect of excluding qualified young people from coming into agriculture. It is a major reversal of the 1977, 1980 and 1987 Fianna Fáil policy on land use and the Land Commission.

The vital interests of small and family farms, the future development of agriculture and the economic development of the country as a whole are at stake. My party will be opposing the measure in this House if no alternative is forthcoming. The Minister's speech contained no alternative or hint of alternative. He held out no hope or policy. It was a cold death sentence on the Land Commission.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the Bill and I wish to express my gratitude and admiration for the work carried out by the Land Commission. Many Deputies from the west would not agree with everything the Land Commission did but it was reassuring to know that they were there looking after the smallholder and ensuring that he would not be at a disadvantage against bigger farmers when land came on the market. It has been clear for some years, particularly since 1983, that the work of the Land Commission terminated around that time. Since then there has been a lot of confusion and loss of morale in the Land Commission because of the uncertainty about their future.

It may be a very blunt instrument to introduce legislation to abolish the Land Commission but the Minister's speech sets out very clearly what he intends to do. He made a very important point that there are — and always were — certain limitations on the Land Commission. One of the major problems was congestion in certain areas — this certainly applied to the west — where there was very little land to acquire and to distribute to smallholders. One of the offshoots was that there was migration from the west to counties like Meath, and this was one of the ways of resolving the very serious problem of congestion in the west.

The Land Commission have been involved in acquiring and distributing land, they have built dwellinghouses, out-offices, have carried out drainage and reclamation work and erected fences. The Land Commission provided water supplies and even constructed roads. In some parts of the country they played a social role by providing sports fields and even provided the odd cow plot for non-farmers. In fact, the Land Commission carried out work to meet the needs of local communities. Acquisition of land was terminated in 1983 and since then morale among the staff of the Land Commission has been low. A number of major problems arose in the west since that decision. The first problem relates to the payment of annuities by farmers who acquired land from the Land Commission and the second concerns the division and distribution of land which the Land Commission have had for many years.

An interdepartmental committee reported in 1978 on the Land Commission and that was followed by the White Paper in 1980. It is interesting to note that the interdepartmental committee came to the conclusion that the policy of acquiring and distributing land had outlived its usefulness. The procedure for acquiring land, particularly in regard to smallholdings which often involved legal battles, proved long and tedious. In many cases the acquisition of the land did not achieve what the commission set out to do. I accept that many of the proposals contained in the White Paper issued in 1980 received some support at the time. However, it was clearly stated in the White Paper that there were limitations to the traditional policies of the Land Commission. It also pointed out that there were certain legal and financial constraints which would apply to any Government.

The White Paper also referred to the difficulties associated with the resale of land at a price which would recover the full cost of the acquisition to the State. The Minister should consider that problem. He should also consider the problems experienced by farmers who have had to pay too much for land. In many cases the land was bought at a time when it was fetching between £3,000 and £4,000 per acre which was a very high price. I understand that the smaller annuities have been abolished and the Minister should consider giving assistance to farmers who are experiencing difficulties in repaying money borrowed to meet big annuities.

I urge the Minister to proceed with the division of land as quickly as possible. I do not think there is too much land on hands but many schemes have been completed by local offices and submitted for sanction to the head office in Dublin. It is disgraceful that many estates and holdings continue to be let by the Land Commission on the six months or 11-months system. The Minister should consider introducing a scheme similar to that brought in by the Minister for the Environment for the sale of local authority houses to tenants. Local authority tenants were given a very good deal under that scheme. The Minister should consider accepting a reasonable payment from smallholders for land leased from the Land Commission. It is worth noting that most of the land let for many years is in bad condition and I accept that the payment must be by cash because that is the way the Land Commission are doing business.

I should like to deal with a number of the points raised by Deputy Stagg in regard to the White Paper issued in 1980. That publication suggested that there should be a priority list of smallholders. In my view that would be a cumbersome way to deal with the allocation of land because it would need frequent updating and that would take a lot of time. Deputy Stagg mentioned the control of land purchase and in my view that would lead to constitutional problems. I should like to point out to Deputy Stagg that there would be financial problems involved in producing a scheme to assist people to purchase land. However, I agree with him that the Minister should consider the question of a surcharge on land purchase.

Deputy Doyle referred to the Land Bill introduced by Deputy Connaughton in 1984. While it was welcomed at the time I do not think its provisions have proved successful. I would prefer the group purchase schemes which the Land Commission promoted in the west. The commission gave excellent advice to groups who wanted to purchase land on the market. I hope the Department will continue to help those who have the initiative to improve their holdings.

Commonages are causing many problems, as is the division of bogs. I should like to congratulate the new board, ERAD, on their work to eradicate disease. In their interests it is vital that commonages are divided as quickly as possible. We are all aware of how costly the bovine TB eradication scheme has been and how important it is for the country that our herds are declared TB-free. We should make use of the assistance available from the EC for the division of commonages. Grants are also available from the EC, through the farm modernisation and the farm installation schemes, to help young farmers inherit farms from their parents. I am glad many young farmers are availing of that assistance.

Many speakers referred to the fact that milk quotas are tied up with land. The Minister, and our MEPs, have been fighting hard at EC level on behalf of farmers who have small milk quotas. Those farmers are at a severe disadvantage because the bigger farmers have the cash to buy land. A strong case can be made for the farmers with small milk quotas. There are schemes for young farmers, for those who have disease in their herds and even a lottery for farmers whose output is less than 10,000 gallons of milk but we must do more for farmers, particularly those in south Galway, who are at a severe disadvantage in regard to milk quotas. Many of them thought their quotas would be increased by the local co-ops. With milk quotas tied to land, it is vital that these small farmers be assisted also.

Many Deputies have dealt with the section of the Land Commission concerned with vesting and revesting. I would ask the Minister to look at the problems farmers have in trying to sort out titles to property when the Land Registry are involved as well as the vesting and revesting section of the Land Commission. There are very few staff to deal with all the applications on hand. As the Minister probably knows, there is a sizeable backlog of applications at present. At a time when the Land Registry are getting extra staff it should be possible for additional staff to be appointed to the Department of Agriculture and Food, who are taking over the functions of the Land Commission, so that farmers will not have to wait lengthy periods to have these problems resolved. I have spoken to the Minister on several occasions about the plight of farmers who have large overdrafts because their problems in regard to titles have not been sorted out by the Land Commission and the Land Registry.

In conclusion, I ask the Minister to ensure that the controls which he says are still there will be used when the Department of Agriculture and Food take over ment of Agriculture and Food take over the functions of the Land Commission. As decisions in Europe are biting, especially the decisions in regard to milk, I would ask him in particular to ensure that assistance is given to farmers who have smaller quotas. I hope these small farmers will get the advice they need, that they will be able to continue to get the training and education in agriculture which they require, and that they will never be at a disadvantage compared to farmers who have cheque books and the cash to buy up the land which is on the market.

I should like to pay tribute to all the good men who have worked in the Land Commission over the years. I have had a certain amount of experience with them over the past 20 to 25 years. They were an exceptional group who did an awful lot of good work. I should publicly like to pay tribute to them for the work they did on behalf of the small farmers. I would not say that everybody employed by the Land Commission would come into that category, but I should like to pay tribute to those who did good work.

The Minister in his speech said that the Land Commission had often been criticised in the past for the speed with which they brought individual redistributions to a conclusion. If ever I found fault with the Land Commission it was that when they acquired land there was a delay in dividing it. If one looks back at the record of the House, particularly the debates on the Estimates for Lands, and the questions put down by Deputies at Question Time, one will see that Deputies spoke largely about the exceptionally slow rate at which the Land Commission divided land.

There are a number of omissions in the Minister's speech but one of the issues I think should have been mentioned is the amount of land the Land Commission have at present and the form in which they hold it. It would be fair to say that the morale of the staff in the field officers division and other divisions of the Land Commission was decimated over the last few years because they did not have faith in successive Governments and the way they acted.

This is an historic day in the sense that the Land Commission are being abolished but nothing is being put in their place. It is very necessary that some body be established in their place. I do not want an individual to take over their responsibilities, and I do not want the Minister to have anything to do with it at all because I do not think he would be competent to take over the functions of the Land Commission. There was more than enough political interference in the past, and we certainly do not want any added political interference in the future.

I thought Michael Davitt would have been entitled to a mention by the Minister in his speech. Many men played a big part in agrarian reform in this country and now that the Land Commission are being wound up, tribute should be paid to them for the good work they did on behalf of many small farmers who had very few people to represent them. I should like to know what the future of the small land holders will be, or if they have any future now that the Land Commission are being abolished. In the past the Land Commission played an exceptionally active role in the acquisition of estates. Some estates may only have consisted of ten acres, and rather than let an individual who did not need it or a person who was not involved in agriculture buy it, the Land Commission acquired it under section 40 of the Land Act, and if a small farmer came up with as good a price as the top bidder he was entitled to buy it. I see definite problems being created for many smallholders who want to purchase small parcels of land when they come on the market. I know that there is a right of free sale and if a person is selling land he will sell it to the highest bidder. However, if we want to maintain a vital society in rural areas, there must be some type of land authority to protect the rights of the small farmers, that is, if you think they have rights. If a body is not appointed and given muscle, the rights those individuals should have will be almost automatically surrendered.

It would appear that the main opposition party support this Bill and because they do, the Bill will almost certainly go through. The Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture and Food, Deputy Kirk, who is present this evening is a practical individual but the problems experienced by the people in County Louth are very few in comparision with the problems being experienced by people in my constituency. It is necessary that some type of land authority be established. I heard Deputy Doyle quote for the benefit of the Minister an election manifesto of the Government party prior to the last general election that referred to the establishment of a land authority with many functions. It sounded well and appeared to refer to many functions of such an authority with which I could readily identify. The question must be posed: are they forgetting all of these proposals now? It is essential that some type of body be established, be that a land authority or whatever. It must be remembered that we cannot revert to the Land Commission. Indeed, it might well be said that the action of successive Governments demoralised those who worked hardest for that State body.

Any such exercise on the part of a land authority must be seen to be fair to smallholders who will be unable to compete for land on the open market; they are unable to do so at present. Deputy Stagg mentioned an excessive price of £6,000 paid for an acre of land somewhere in the south. We all know that such a price is exceptional; probably there was a milk quota attached to it or something of that nature. That does not constitute an average price for agricultural land, but if one is engaged in anything other than milk production, say horticulture or whatever, then land is not worth anything like the price mentioned by Deputy Stagg. Indeed a figure of £1,000 per acre probably would be more appropriate, and holdings are tending to become larger.

Many farmers' sons have emigrated as they see no future in farming. Indeed there will be fewer prospects for the future for such people unless some type of land authority is established affording them some hope of acquiring land they would otherwise be unable to purchase on the open market. That would be my plea to the Minister of State present. While appreciating that I may well be wasting my time I must still make such requests. There were, and probably still are, many people employed by the Land Commission who played and continue to play a noble role, doing much good for many people. I should like to pay a tribute to them.

I refer to the historical set of facts with which we are confronted in considering the provisions of this Bill and the major fact is that for many years the Land Commission,de facto, had been run down. Over the past four to five years there were occasions when many of their employees had no work to do in relation to many of the functions assigned them.

It was a decision of the previous Government to cease land acquisition and abolish the Land Commission. Apparently it was also a decision of the previous Government to cease allocating land on the traditional basis on which the Land Commission had hitherto allocated such land, that is in accordance with local need. There have been many expressions of concern in my constituency and others that the remaining lands in the hands of the Land Commission would be sold off to the highest bidder. I am glad to note that that has not been the case. Equally I am glad to note that the Land Commission staff are proceeding with all due haste to devise schemes whereby local people, most in need, will be allocated the remaining tracts of land out of estates at present held by the Land Commission.

Given the increase in land prices in the seventies the Land Commission had reached a point at which they would have to examine their role or have it examined for them. Ultimately their role was defined by reason of the fact that they experienced grave difficulty in persuading farmers to take land at the high annuities occasioned, in turn, by the high acquisition costs incurred by the Land Commission in the seventies. Indeed in many constituencies in which there were large divisions of land in the seventies people have lived with those unduly high annuities on land throughout the eighties, particularly in the years 1985 and 1986 when agricultural incomes declined on account of bad prices, high costs and inclement weather. This has meant that there are farmers in my constituency and elsewhere faced with extreme difficulty in paying such annuities. It will be readily appreciated that the system operated throughout the seventies quickly became redundant in the eighties. Even if efforts were made to resuscitate the Land Commission they would experience grave difficulty in reverting to the type of operation that had obtained in the earlier years of the State when they seemed to have a radical, important influence in shaping rural life and its developments.

Some time ago I carried out research in relation to the effect of Land Commission acquisition of untenanted land and its redistribution to smallholders in County Westmeath, that is either those living there or those who had come to the county, predominantly from the west, to acquire holdings in exchange for those they had held in the west. Since the foundation of the State my research showed that Land Commission activities in County Westmeath created an estimated 3,000 reasonably viable farm holdings initially. Of course, as the years progressed, the size of such holdings rendered them non-viable and any further allocations of land did not serve to render them any more viable. However, in terms of the ability of that land to support people, my studies showed that approximately 5,000 people over the last 60 years would have been more or less sustained by the re-distribution activities of the Land Commission. They were placed in a position in which they could remain on the land in reasonable comfort, sometimes supplementing their incomes through off-farm activities, but always participating in rural society and its development. I pay particular tribute to the staff of the Land Commission who worked in my county throughout those years and who continue to work diligently in devising good schemes.

In recent years the provisions of the various schemes have been improved in that the amount of land being distributed to farmers and the types of holdings being established were much more viable, their attendant infrastructure having been planned in a better, modern manner. One of the sad aspects of early Land Commission activity was the small size of the housing on such lands, much of which quickly became derelict and unoccupied, not even comparable with housing standards of 30 or 40 years ago.

Many people came from the west to County Westmeath. These people were settled on Land Commission holdings in County Westmeath in return for relinquishing their holdings in the west. Over the years they played their full part in community life in the midlands. I know that I speak for other counties in the midlands, apart from County Westmeath. These people provided a vital input into agriculture, sport, education and the overall cultural development of the area. Looking back, we can now say that the policy of shifting whole communities eastwards to the midlands was a very radical step to take. It is great to be able to say that these settlements were a success and that the people, without saying goodbye to the west, found in the midlands a hospitable climate to put down roots and the means by which they could contribute to the welfare of society as a whole. Of course, there were many local smallholders in County Westmeath who from time to time got additions to consolidate their holdings. It is fair to say that the Land Commission activities in County Westmeath avoided the worst consequences of emigration in the fifties, and practically put a stop to it in the sixties and into the seventies.

The Land Commission also played a very important role in County Westmeath in providing an extensive area for cowparks or cow allotments for persons who would not have land, those in labouring jobs or engaged in off-farm work but who for reasons of small income, an interest in farming or an attachment to the land wished to have a cow or a few stock. They then had the opportunity through the trusteeship of the local authority to have these few stock grazing on the cowparks. The influence of these cowparks has been remarkable, because many young people started their farming activities or started off building up their herds through taking short term lettings on a headage basis. Over the years there have been various efforts to dispose of these cowparks in County Westmeath. Some people think they are anachronistic. However, I am glad to put on record that I have always opposed that attitude. At a time when one talks a great deal about using the services of FAS, Teagasc, the IDA and other bodies to foster enterprise and the enterpreneurial spirit, it is nice to think that we have in place in my own county 600 or 700 acres where young people, smallholders, or unemployed people, can get a foot into stockmanship and enterprise at no cost to the taxpayer because the scheme is self-financing. The rent pays for whatever expense is involved, and more besides.

Other speakers have referred to the importance of the Land Commission in providing facilities for recreation and access to public amenities. Perhaps Westmeath more than any other county best exemplifies the activity of the Land Commission in providing access to the various lakes in the county. In my lifetime I recollect there was very little or no access to Lough Derravaragh, Lough Ennell and Lough Owel before the Land Commission made very generous allotments to the local authority for the provision of roads and amenity access to the lakes. At a time when these facilities are being developed in the context of agri-tourism and rural integrated development, it is very heartening to realise that back in the fifties, sixties and seventies there were far-seeing people in the community, local authority and Land Commission who saw the need for the provision of these facilities. This was brought to mind very forcibly when I sat on a special committee for Lough Ree. I found that in the three counties traversed by Lough Ree, Counties Westmeath, Longford and Roscommon, there was not enough public access to that great amenity. In this case, the Land Commission and the local authority had been remiss in not providing sufficient access thereby reducing the capacity of the tourist and the general public to enjoy that amenity.

Previous speakers did not mention that the Land Commission made a vital impact in the area of bogs and turbary provision and management. The harvesting of bogland and turf is a very complicated business. The law relating to turbary rights has been complicated to a bewildering degree. The Land Commission very often came in on top of a very confusing situation and provided a system whereby the turbary rights to the bog could be shared on a rational basis between the hundreds of tenants. This activity became redundant in the fifties, sixties and seventies when handcutting and winning of turf fell into disuse and hence the role of the Land Commission ceased in that area.

However, with the onset of new technology for turf harvesting the problem of regulating tenants' bog remains fairly significant. I know this Bill will not interfere with the legal powers the Land Commission had in regulating areas of bog, resolving disputes between tenants and appointing trustees if necessary. I would like to think that the Land Commission's powers would be retained in possible reparcelling of bogland when the existing bogs become cut away and the tenants become frustrated by the lack of available bog. I concede this is a marginal area of interest and only involves the counties which have tenanted bogs. However, this area creates legal disputes and deserves some study by the Department of Agriculture and Food now that they have inherited the mantle of the Land Commission.

The argument of speakers who long for a continuation of the 100 year old Land Commission in its present structure, which has remained static since the thirties, is unfounded. We have to look to European thinking on rural integrated development. The Department of Agriculture and Food would do well, as I know they are, to study the provisions of the European White Paper on Rural Development, entitled "The Future of Rural Society" in which the reparcelling of land was highlighted as an activity which might be supported by EC funds. Incentives to facilitate land consolidation and opening the way to young farmers would also be supported by the EC under the Structural Funds and the special funds available for rural integrated development.

Debate adjourned.