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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 15 May 1991

Vol. 408 No. 5

Adjournment Debate. - Agriculture and Food and Industry and Commerce Matters.

The House will now hear two minute statements on matters appropriate to the Minister for Agriculture and Food and the Minister for Industry and Commerce. I propose to call on the Deputies I have selected in the following order: Deputy Deenihan, Deputy Gerry Reynolds, Deputy Browne (Carlow-Kilkenny), Deputy Alien and Deputy Cotter. Each Deputy is entitled to two minutes in respect of each matter and each statement will be followed immediately by a two minute reply by the appropriate Minister.

The criteria used in the proposal to the EC to reclassify less severely handicapped areas to more severely handicapped status were (a) land quality; (b) low farm income, that is family farm income for farm worker not exceeding 40 per cent of the national average family farm income; and (c) high dependence on agriculture, that is more than 40 per cent of the working population engaged in farming.

I would like to ask the Minister here tonight whether those criteria will be changed when the appeals tribunal are set up so that areas that were not included in the last proposal will be brought in. Unless the criteria are changed there is no chance that large tracts of north Kerry, for example, and other parts of the country, will be included. Will the brief the Minister is giving to the appeals tribunal include a change in the criteria as they exist at the moment?

The reclassification proposals sent to the EC consisted of two parts. In one part all existing mountain sheep grazing areas were proposed for reclassification to less severely handicapped status on the basis of the five criteria used for designation of new areas. These are laid down by the EC for member states and are expressed either in absolute terms or geared to national agriculture and demographic statistics. We have no discretion in proposing changes to them other than changes to reflect significant shifts in land use and population trends over time.

The second part of the proposals sent to the EC was to reclassify less severely handicapped areas to more severely handicapped status and the further national criteria used were (a) land quality (b) low farm income, that is family farm income for farm worker not exceeding 40 per cent of the national average family farm income and (c) high dependence on agriculture, that is more than 40 per cent of the working population engaged in farming. It will be open to the appeals body to review these national criteria in marginal areas and make recommendations to the Minister in relation, for example, to income thresholds having regard to the cost implications and availability of the necessary credits under the Structural Funds. In the last analysis, approval of national reclassification criteria and proposals is a matter for the EC Commission.

I would like to refer to the situation in my county and its disadvantaged areas where a large number of headage grants have not been paid. The Government and the Minister for Agriculture and Food promised these headage grants would be paid prior to Christmas. I have on my files details of over 100 cases of farmers in Sligo and Leitrim who have received no headage payment as yet. This is a despicable action by the Government and it shows their insensitivity towards farmers in the disadvantaged areas. I am extremely angry because the farmers' income limit has been reduced considerably over the last number of years and they need headage payments to survive. The Government did not provide these headage payments when they should have provided them at Christmas.

I would also like to take up the matter of the TB reactor grants. Efforts have been made for a long number of years to get rid of the problem of TB and a great deal of money has been spent trying to do so. I have a number of constituents who are waiting in excess of nine months for payment ofTB reactor grants. This is a despicable action by the Government. Today I was speaking with departmental officials who informed me that the money is not available to pay reactor grants. I would be grateful if the Minister could have this money made available immediately.

I can assure the Deputy that there has been no unreasonable delay in making payments under the 1990 livestock headage and premium schemes. The present position is that a total of around £245 million has now been paid in respect of about 318,000 applications under these schemes.

The cases remaining unpaid are those on which queries of one kind or another have arisen and the payments cannot be processed further until the applicants concerned supply the additional information which has been requested by my Department.

There is no long delay in the payment of TB reactor grants to affected farmers. The time scale for reactor grant payments is governed by a number of factors namely (i) the receipt of evidence of slaughter of the reactor from the meat export premises, (ii) certification that cleansing and disinfection of the affected holding has taken place if required, (iii) the herdowner has to produce a tax reference number if the grants exceed £500 and a current tax clearance certificate from the Revenue Commissioners when the grants are in excess of £10,000. Any time lag in the receipt of the necessary documentation will result in delay in grant payment. Payment of reactor grants may only be made where the conditions set down for payment are satisfied in all respects.

(Carlow-Kilkenny): I could shorten this two minute contribution to two seconds by asking a simple question, when, but I had better observe protocol. The Abattoirs Act came into operation on 22 June 1989. Carlow County Council, being very obedient to the laws of the land, appointed a vet on the basis that the funds would be received because they could charge for the services. Nothing happened, and last year the council spent £30,000 towards the payment of the vet and services.

On 17 May 19901 put down a question to the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy O'Kennedy, asking when the regulations would be introduced. Following a long answer he concluded by saying that: "Further regulations are at present being finalised and are expected to come into operation in the near future". Again nothing happened so I raised it on the Adjournment on 5 December 1990. This time the Minister of State at the Department of Agriculture and Food, Deputy Walsh, took up the cudgels and having given much information, which I had known in advance, concluded by saying: "By highlighting the matter the Deputy has helped expedite the regulations". Now we are back to the anniversary of 17 May, almost exactly to the day, when I am asking the question again: when will the regulations come into operation? If the Minister is having difficulties — as he seems to be — I would ask him to either withdraw the Abattoirs Act or else compensate Carlow County Council for obeying a foolish rule which the Government introduced.

The provisions of the Abattoirs Act which provide for the collection of fees by local authorities in respect of veterinary examination of animals in domestic abattoirs will be commenced shortly when regulations providing for the veterinary examination and health marking of fit meat are finalised. These regulations are in the final stages of preparation and I hope to introduce them shortly. The delay has been due to the technical complexity requiring translation of detailed technical procedures into the correct legal form.

I appreciate the delay has caused difficulty for the local authorities but it is hoped that this issue can be finalised very soon.

It is appropriate that we should be burning the midnight oil tonight to discuss the issue of Irish Steel. At present we are in the throes of the worst unemployment situation in this century. Cork has not escaped and has a 10.4 per cent increase in unemployment figures in the last 12 months. The Minister gave me a reply recently in the House to a question regarding Irish Steel. I would ask the Minister to give us up-to-date information on the situation there. This industry is vital to the interests of Cork which has suffered many setbacks in the past. I hope that everything possible will be done to ensure the survival of Irish Steel. I would ask the Minister to say what is happening in relation to the rationalisation programme, which is another word for job losses. Perhaps he could also tell us the present stage of the negotiations which are taking place with the foreign interests which are often quoted.

As I indicated in the Dail on 24 April last, efforts to find a suitable partner for Irish Steel are continuing but there have been no significant new developments in the matter recently. Contacts are continuing with the former Korf organisation, which is now owned by Metallgesellschaft, with a view to determining whether that group are now prepared — since their take over — to make a serious proposal. Obviously I would be very interested to hear that because Metallgesellschaft is a major company. There are no further developments regarding North Star or Ispat at present. The possibility of any interest by a Japanese steel firm is being pursued currently.

I have made it clear that my primary concern is to seek to ensure the future viability of the company and its workforce. In my reply here on 24 April I said:

It is incumbent upon me to use my judgment to try to ensure that whoever buys Irish Steel is the best possible person — or company — from the point of view of the country and the workforce and the continued viability of the company well into the future... I would say to those who are frustrated that it is in their own interest that we try to get it right rather than just get rid of it.

Which is what is being urged on me.

I have had detailed discussions concerning the future of Irish Steel with both representatives of the workforce of the company and the board and management of the company in the recent past.

Negotiations between management and unions in the company are at an early stage regarding a package of rationalisation measures including proposals for 96 voluntary redundancies. It is in the interest of the company that these negotiations be brought to a successful conclusion as soon as possible. This should improve the competitiveness of Irish Steel which is trading at present in a very difficult international environment. Unfortunately, the company is likely to return to a loss for the current year to end June. This follows two years of modest profits.

What nationality is that company?

They are German.

Thank you.

We will now hear a two minute statement from Deputy Cotter.

I want to discuss with the Minister the failure of the Government to do anything constructive to achieve lower insurance costs especially for hard pressed motorists.

The Government should admit that they have failed the electorate regarding liability insurance. The insurance companies have failed also in their responsibilities to their clients. The Government have made a number of changes in various areas, for example, in court procedures, but to no avail. Insurance costs have continued to soar and already this year insurance companies have increased premiums by between 5 per cent and 13 per cent from already very high threshold levels.

I suggest that a Government task force be set up to take urgent steps to tackle this disgraceful situation. The Minister for Industry and Commerce, the Minister for the Environment and the Minister for Justice should use their considerable power to drive down considerable costs. The task force should see to it that a number of steps are implemented; first, that the Road Traffic Act is rigorously applied thus improving driving standards generally; second, that insurance companies co-operate with the Garda in rooting out fraud which is costing the insurance companies large sums of money each year; third, that insurance companies make a strong effort to reduce the cost of administration which is higher in Ireland than in other countries; fourthly, that uninsured driving be cut out — if that was achieved it would mean a saving of up to £30 million per year — and, fifthly, that an ethos of honesty be created through heavy media advertising or some such effort. We need a rigorous and thorough approach. If such approach was taken, insurance costs would come down and we would save the insurance companies millions of pounds. In turn, the reduction in cost should be passed on to the hard pressed motorists, industrialists and everybody who relies on liability insurance.

I would like to remind the Deputy of what I have said in this House on a number of occasions over recent months, that is that the price of insurance, particularly motor insurance, is substantially dependent on the frequency of claims and the cost of settling those claims. Unhappily, in this country that frequency and that cost are abnormally high. It may have something to do with what the Deputy said about the ethos of our approach to insurance and to claims but unhappily, I do not think media advertising will change that ethos. If it could be done that easily I am sure it would have been done by now. If anything, unfortunately, the position is getting worse.

The Deputy mentioned the question of fraud and I am glad he did. I was delighted to find that a prolonged major fraud in which one individual has had II successful claims in the courts in Cork over the last eight years has at least been uncovered. His latest attempt at a fraudulent claim has been dismissed by a judge there, together with five other fraudulent claims that were taken together. This is a much more widespread practice than people realise, and I am glad the Deputy has adverted to it.

I have for some time past been most concerned at the high cost of motor insurance and have been active in seeking ways of achieving reductions. To this end an inter-ministerial group, comprising of the Ministers for Justice and the Environment, the Attorney General and myself, are at present examining ways and means of improving the environment for motor insurance in particular. This group are focusing on strict and sustained enforcement of existing road traffic legislation, amendments to the Road Traffic Acts designed to reduce the motor accident rate, suggestions to improve the cost and availability of motor insurance and improvements and alternatives to the courts system for the resolution of per sonal injury claims. I am hopeful that this will result in a number of positive proposals which can be implemented ini the very early future. I would add however, that Government action of itself will not reduce or stabilise motor insurance costs. Consumers must play their part by increased awareness of the need for safety.

The Deputy mentioned the high level of uninsured driving which is a major contributor to the cost for those who do insure their cars. The interministerial group which I have mentioned has con up with certain proposals of a fairly drastic nature, but nonetheless a nature that I think is necessary, which we hope to put before the Government for agreement within the next few weeks.

The Dáil adjourned at 12.05 a.m. until 10.30 a.m. on Thursday, 16 May 1991.