I was saying before Question Time that so far as the dissolution of the Land Commission is concerned, for the first time in 50 years we now have no control over the amounts of land being purchased by outsiders, foreigners and, indeed, by persons inside Ireland who have no expertise in farming. This obviously must come as a great shock to people who genuinely believed there would be some mechanism to protect their interests. I had also gone on to talk about the group purchase scheme which I introduced when I was in the Department. For the life of me I can never understand why this type of scheme was not introduced many years earlier. One of the great problems with the acquisition programme was that it was not cost effective. It was too cumbersome and too much taxpayers' money was tied up in the actual purchase of land down through the years.
The particular scheme which I introduced four or five years ago meant that the State was not involved in the purchase of land. There were no land bonds — which would have been an advantage from the beginning — and that meant that the people who were most likely to farm the land well were those who were most likely to pay for it and get on with the job. We put it to the test and, as I said before Question Time, we have the figures to prove that if the Land Commission personnel on the ground understood the fears and the anxieties of people involved and there had been a vote of confidence in the staff of the Land Commission to act as the honest broker, then we would have saved millions of pounds to the Exchequer and we would have a much quicker, sharper and much more cost effective scheme. Unfortunately, in my view, that came about 15 years too late. By the time we were able to implement it the great disposing of the Land Commission staff had begun and in the last two years the ghost was given up altogether.
When I see a Fianna Fáil Bill proposing to dissolve the Land Commission I think I have seen everything in Irish politics. I fully understand the reasons for the Land Commission being wound up and am not objecting to that, but I am objecting to no authority being put in their place. I want to stitch the following matter into the record. Only four years ago a big farm came up for sale in Laurencetown, near Ballinasloe in County Galway. Everybody knew that for the previous five years the Land Commission had not been involving themselves in acquisition proceedings under any Government; they were just not purchasing land. We had introduced the group purchase concept and I was junior Minister at the time, with responsibility for lands. Naturally, the people concerned came to me and said there was something dreadfully wrong with a Government who would not provide money to buy that 300 acre farm and divide it out. I said that we were not going to do that and that the Government before us had not done it. I advised those men to buy the farm between them and promised to put the Land Commission staff at their disposal and for the various amounts of money that they had available we would allocate land at apro rata basis to them. It dawned on those farmers that that was the thing to do. Deputy Treacy, now Minister of State, was at that meeting and could see no reason that the Government would not take the farm over, pay the land bonds and give the land out in the ordinary way. Not alone that, he reckoned that the 15 persons residing in cottages adjoining that farm were entitled to a small number of acres for nothing out of the estate. That was only four or five years ago. Fianna Fáil have done a great turn-around in so far as that episode was concerned.
The acquisition of land, payment in land bonds and redistribution five or six years later was not cost effective. In so far as that part of the Bill is concerned, I shed no tears. However, I am particularly upset at some of the matters raised in the Minister's speech and some statements which have been made here this week. It appears that market forces will now be allowed to dictate. In other words, if you have the money you can buy the land and if you have not, nobody is there to help you in any way.
There are two other factors to which I wish to refer. I put forward the proposal earlier today that we should have some type of overall authority with a certain amount of bite, that would look into all matters relating to land policy. An agricultural country is entitled to that. It is important to realise that there is a number of areas in which, when this Bill gets through the House, there will be difficulty. What will happen to the group purchase schemes that are on the books but obviously are not being worked at the moment? Who will provide the manpower, the publicity campaigns and so forth?
Secondly, who will divide the commonages that are left? I am long enough in the tooth to know that in so far as many of the major problems in agriculture are concerned they do not extend to the division of commonages. However, if you happen to be a commonage owner, particularly in one of the western counties, and genuinely want to divide the commonage and have one or two people who are obstructive — these are in every townland in Ireland — how will it be possible to divide those commonages and get on with the show? We found it hard enough to divide them when there was a Land Commission man available to act as a referee, but what will happen when he is not there? Is there any system through Teagasc or the FDS or is any thought being given to that? In that last two years nobody in Agriculture House has given any thought to those problems, small though they may be. When you put the lot together as a land policy, you are obviously on the wrong track.
Let us consider the multiplicity of fragmented farms all over the country. It is quite possible that one farmer is quite prepared, under certain circumstances, to exchange land with the neighbour in order to make a more useful, economic holding. People who do not understand the system would say that if people are that eager about it, let them do it and not use taxpayers' money in doing so. Perhaps there should be a cost factor involved. One thing I am sure of from my four and a half years experience of dealing with the Land Commission is that unless there is some person, the honest broker about whom I talked, who has expertise in land and land distribution and understands the psychological reasons for the tantrums that people get into when dealing with land, no scheme will be successful. I proved conclusively, with the new purchase scheme, that you could settle matters in a month which took six years previously and cost literally several hundred thousand pounds of taxpayers' money. That may be an oversimplification but there are great grounds to believe that that scheme can be successful.
With regard particularly to the west, but this concerns other areas as well, there is the question of turbary rights. Nobody seems to lift a finger nowadays about this matter. You can phone one of the few remaining Land Commission offices and they say they are not geared for this. The fuel rquirements of many families is very important to them and if they knew who owned the turbary rights they could settle matters.
I spoke about the concept of some sort of control on land sales. I made it very plain that it would be a very loose arrangement. I believe that the owner of the land is entitled to the last penny at public auction, but it is very important that qualified, suitable, small family farmers are entitled to the first bite of the cherry. I said that one thousand times in the last 20 years and if I live another 20 I shall say it just as often. There is an obligation on the State to ensure, in some way or other — and I have to accept that this is a difficult case — that these small farmers are protected. We cannot wash our hands, do a Pontius Pilate on it and let market forces dictate. If that happens, let nobody come into this House and say that we carried the flag for a certain type of small to medium farmer. I am not talking about farms of five, or 12, or 20 acres. I am talking about the vast majority of farmers who are getting no State support, being deemed not to be entitled to it, who have a poor enough standard of living because they have very limited acreage and who are absolutely top class, qualified farmers. I am not talking about gombeen men but about the best in the business at a particular level.
The time is most opportune — and in fact has passed — to have some type of national body, statutory body in place. I sincerely hope that the next such legislation we will see, either enacted here in the House or as a ministerial direction, will provide for some body with the type of personnel I have spoken about here today. I could go on for two hours about this subject if I was allowed.
There is something about the agricultural community that I cannot understand. Unless there is an increase of ½p on the gallon for milk or 1p on the pound for beef, the structures always take second and third place in any discussion I had with any group of farmers, organised, unofficial or what have you. That is a great pity, because at the end of the day it is very important to have structures that can meet eventualities that will turn up in time, and great thought must be put into them. I remember in the lifetime of the last Government something we spoke about in Macra na Feirme years ago, a measure to expedite the transfer of land from father to son. However it is organised, it is important that there be a system that would make it attractive for a retiring couple to hand the land over. I introduced a long term leasing concept which in itself is very good. I cannot say it was a world shattering performance, but it needed to be done and it created a vehicle for quite a number of people. As it turned out, the income margin in farming became tight but I assume that from now on the basis for long term leasing will become favourable again or the climate will become favourable for it.
We pay stamp duty on the transfer of a farm from father to son, and this was linked up with the concept, provided certain educational standards were attained in the agricultural area. Several thousand small farmers were concerned in this. This Government for one reason or another decided to disband and discontinue that scheme. That is unfortunate. Maybe the rationale behind it is that it might be better to drop it for a year or two and reintroduce it, but I hear nobody, from the Minister or the two Ministers of State down, ever refer to this. If we believed the land of Ireland should be in the hands of people best equipped and trained for it, then obviously the younger the generation the better chance we have of shaping up to the problems of 1992. We went to great lengths for that and I do not hear too much from the agricultural press at the moment about the fact that it is not there, and I am not sure that the agricultural organisations are too worried about it. However, many medium to small farmers cannot understand why when they go to transfer the farm now it is costing thousands of pounds in some cases because of stamp duty. There is a fair case to be made there, particularly for any new monitoring body who come in to replace the Land Commission.
A land authority should have certain clearly defined powers. They should not be toothless, as we say, because we have too many talking shops. They should be composed of various people and interest groups who make up the whole agricultural arena. I referred to it earlier today and said certainly all the farm organisations and Teagasc, the advisory people, should be represented; and there is no reason at all why auctioneers and valuers and all such people should not have a big impact on such a body. There should be clearly defined Government policy and, working within those confines, this statutory board would do the things we believe would be good for the agricultural industry. Very little was said about this all week.
It is not enough for Fianna Fáil to come along and say this happened in the Coalition's time, it was decided to cease the Land Commission's activities then, four or five years ago. Great time and effort were put in a few years ago to the concept of replacing them when this went before the House, but there is not a single word about it at the moment. It is no harm that the agricultural community know through this House what exactly is proposed for them or, if it is not proposed here, that they organise themselves to make sure that the powers that be, irrespective of who is here, will ensure certain proposals are put in train that will be to their benefit in the whole land policy area in the years to come.
I do not know what is going to happen in 1992. Can anybody foresee what is going to happen in many areas of Irish life? Certainly, the scene will never be the same again. Consider the prospect of many thousands of our valuable agricultural acres being marked up right across the country by people who have no commitment to this country or to agriculture who are coming here, maybe for financial reasons, maybe to bury money, maybe because we have a clean environment. Of course, we like them to come to this country; but do we like them to come at the expense or potential expense of many thousands of medium sized farmers who would make a very fruitful living had they got that extra land when they wanted it.
This House had heard this kind of talk for many a long year. This will be the last time we will hear it in the context of the Land Commission because they will be gone whenever this Bill is enacted. I make a very strong plea to the Minister here today to try to convince his colleagues in Fianna Fáil — and a great deal of convincing will have to be done right across the country — that a land authority is very important. At the moment I foresee little enough trouble for the next year or two. We will be on auto pilot and let everything happen that should or can happen; but if that is not planned for, then in the next five or six years there will be many very unhappy Irish farming families who will believe genuinely that someone somewhere let them down. Whatever you do, make sure there are some personnel in every county, whether under the aegis of the FDS, Teagasc, or anybody else, to do the jobs I am talking about in relation to group purchase, division of commonages, division of bogs and so on.
Let us make sure there will always be enough staff for years to come under the vesting section and other areas of the Land Commission. If it is decided to let the staff levels run any lower there will not be a solicitor or his client in the country but will be up the wall because they will not get the documents they are looking for. The documents are over there, as I know because it was my job to see them when I was over there, but it is like going through the eye of a needle at the moment to get them out because the staff are not there. Although this is not within my remit, let me say if a fee must be charged to get them out, then provide for that; but do not let the scene be such that technically you can come into the Dáil and say the system is there and we have it manned when it is not there.
It was not today nor yesterday the numbers in those offices began to fall. I have been approached by several solicitors on this and I know from my constituency that there must be some reasonable level in those offices — they will have to be there for many a year — and they will have to be staffed by the people who are good at that work, who have a great expertise built up, and, God knows, there are some of them left yet. In this cost conscious country of ours I would even go so far as to say that I would not oppose some small charge to ensure that offices are staffed and necessary documents are readily available. We must certainly not allow staff with expertise to leave and we must ensure that numbers are adequate.
This is quite a sad day for the country. A lot of people will miss the Land Commission, although it ceased to be relevant about 25 years go. Major policy changes should have been made then and a full-blooded land authority should have been established to do the things I have been talking about. I will always say in fairness to the people who dissolved the Land Commission that there was never a need for the State to buy land, pay for it in land bonds which nobody wanted and then spend five or six years distributing it. I accept that it was time to change that system but we must ensure that there is some kind of replacement authority.